Speech and Anthony Johnston working in the Richmond City Jail’s recording studio. (Courtesy Photo)

“16 Bars” is a gripping documentary directed by Samuel Bathrick which focuses primarily on the journey of Speech—aka Todd Thomas from the band Arrested Development—who went behind the walls in the city jail of Richmond, VA. This is a unique program for Richmond and a deeper look at how the power of music can impact a person’s life and those around them. Yes, it gets that deep.

While inside the jail we are given a peek into the heartbreaking story of four incarcerated men: Garland, De’vonte, Anthony, and Teddy. The four come from all walks of life–from crippling poverty and homelessness to a decent family life. Along with being able to express themselves, through music with Speech’s help, they are also participating in programs that include anger management.

Inside the makeshift recording studio which is run by the hip-hop legend, we watch these grown people struggle to find a way to get their true feelings out in a productive way. Speech worked across genres from country music to hip-hop and the result is nothing short of miraculous. It’s raw, you bet but there is the source of “16 Bars” power.

To begin it’s important to note that this was an experiment. Before you know it you begin to care about these four men. You find yourself really listening and then hearing the words of their songs. And so when Anthony is quickly singled out for his willful attitude and his insubordination, you feel deeply for him because he’s just told us exactly what he thinks of himself in his song/rap.

What these four men create is authentic, chilling to-the-bone. What do they sing about? Their lives on the street, drug addiction, drug epidemics, and feeling as if having free time could get them deeper into trouble. In short, they sing about being trapped inside the system.

Garland Carr in his cell in the Richmond City Jail. (Courtesy Photo)

I bring Garland for an example. He’s a tall and handsome White man who could never manage to stay clean turning to petty thievery to fund his drug habit. White. Male. Tall and raised in a fairly good family—what happened to Garland? You have to hear and listen to the words in his country music song. Even Speech offers a theory of what might have been possible–because he was the look and sound of a bonified country star but that dream will be deferred.

“16 Bars” is engaging for a myriad of reasons but its Speech sharing the oral histories along with the making of the album that sets this documentary apart.

What also makes the documentary different and powerful is that the film doesn’t propose a solution. It does, however, offer a question asking if programs, like this, were available in hard-hit communities would it make a difference?

There is a track that Speech completed for Teddy which puts the entire program into perspective. This man, like the other three, is capable of greatness when pushed. His story doesn’t end well but his story is very important. A cautionary tale and one, that I hope, will resonate with anyone and everyone that might be following the same destructive path that haunts Teddy.

“16 Bars” doesn’t offer any new revelations. It does something better in my opinion in that it allows Garland, De’vonte, Anthony, and Teddy — for men that society has very little hope for—to get their stories heard and to the documentaries credit, it refuses to provide easy answers.

“16 Bars” now playing in limited cities including New York and Los Angeles.