It would seem that the red carpet at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival is only for the privileged.
On it you see people like Julianne Moore or Francis Ford Coppola. This year, however, it isn’t the stars
that have caused the most sensation. The festival’s highlight is a unique feature movie, O.G. (Original
Gangster), directed by Madeleine Sackler. One of its stars, 36-year-old Theothus Carter, hasn’t been
able to attend the festival, as he is going to be in prison until 2076. He is serving 65 years at the
Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Indiana, where O.G. was filmed. Carter’s
girlfriend, Talishia Collier, whose two-day stay in New York has been financed by the filmmakers,
appeared on the red carpet instead of her convict boyfriend. O.G. is among very few movies filmed
inside a working prison. The actors were mostly actual prisoners and guards. But how did Carter make
his way into the film and what inspired Sackler to work on such a project?
When Theothus Carter was eleven, he stole a car, just for fun. This led to his first arrest. By the
time he was thirteen, Carter began each morning by smoking a joint and was often drunk by noon. His
main skill was beating people up and he soon became well known for being violent towards fellow
students. When he was fourteen, his father was shot and killed by a family friend who’d got into an
argument with Carter’s brother over a box of joints. As Carter’s mother was very ill at the time, and
Carter had already developed a reputation of a school bully, the Indianapolis family court decided to
send him to a juvenile home.
In later years, Carter was in and out of jail for various offences. Out again in 2011, he was short
of money and decided to burgle a house in a rich neighbourhood. He thought no one was at home, so,
when the owner suddenly walked in on him, he was so surprised that he dropped his gun by accident.
The owner started shouting, telling his wife to call the police. Carter quickly picked up the gun and,
without a second thought, shot the man, who nearly died as a result. When the police arrived, Carter
claimed self defence, but the police found no evidence of a fight. As a result, he was convicted of
attempted murder and sentenced to sixty-five years in jail.
In 2014, news reached the cell blocks that a crew was coming to Pendleton to make a feature
film. O.G. is about an older prisoner who befriends a younger inmate. It was to be shot inside the
prison, using inmates and guards as actors. Carter jumped at the opportunity. However, at the time, he
wasn’t allowed to participate. You had to be free of any disciplinary offences, and he had just been
caught with a quarter pound of marijuana. But, as the film audition came near, Carter’s disciplinary
period ended, and he got a chance to read for two roles.
His ability to act convincingly as two very different characters fascinated the filmmakers.
The casting director exclaimed: “That guy just won the Oscars of prison!” However, Theothus wasn’t
the only candidate who took the filmmakers’ breath away. There was another inmate who was just as
convincing, but he got into trouble and lost his film privileges. Consequently, it was Carter who was
cast as the younger inmate, Beecher. “One guy’s misfortune is another’s opportunity,” Carter said.
The background of O.G.’s director is itself interesting. Madeleine Sackler comes from one of the
wealthiest American families. The Sacklers own Perdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company that
produces OxyContin – a highly addictive opioid painkiller. The critics say that she decided to work
with convicts because she felt guilty about the way her family had come into its wealth. After all, many
of the prisoners are opioid addicts. Sackler, however, thinks such theories are rubbish. “I have long
been interested in the U.S. prison system. I knew we have over two million prisoners and I’d always
wanted to make a film showing what happens when people don’t get a good education and family care.
I’m not saying these people have been punished too severely. That’s not my role. I’m just trying to
show they became convicts because they hadn’t been given the right opportunities.”
Sackler has a working style that puts her co-workers at ease. She speaks quietly and works in
an unhurried way. She does not impose her ideas on the actors. When she first showed up on the film
set, the prisoners weren’t sure who was in charge. Maybe, tired of being ordered around, they were
open to her kind of command. “She is like our quiet general. She has a confidence that replaces the
need to raise her voice or order people around,” the prisoners say.
Sackler is unlike any celebrities at Tribeca this year. Through her unique project, she wants to
draw attention to people who have been excluded from society. Coming from a wealthy and influential
family, Sackler wants neither money nor fame. She’s come to New York with an important message.
Time will show if that message will be heard.