Josh Leong’s 13-minute short Chicken is meant to be a sympathetic look at incarcerated youth. But it does little to challenge carceral systems, instead acquiescing in the idea that it’s the people in prison who are broken, rather than the system that has caged them.
The film features the convincingly anguished Jordan Biggs as a 16-year-old father incarcerated for a violent crime. The boy is a victim of domestic violence himself; he is locked in a cycle of abuse, unable to react with care and kindness, and unfit, he fears, to be a father. In prison he participates in a program in which the boys raise baby chicks. The hope and the promise of the film is that by caring for these animals, he will learn to care for his child and for himself.
Animal-care programs in prison are extremely worthwhile and valuable, not least because they recognize the humanity of those behind bars. But any discussion of prison needs to acknowledge that prison itself is part of a cycle of violence, not a solution to it. A scene in which a counselor (Opal Besson) tells the boy that he is “not trapped” seems especially tin-eared. She means that he isn’t doomed to hurt others, but she tells him so while he is literally in handcuffs. Physically, materially, he absolutely is trapped, and jailers are not in a position to offer bland promises of freedom.
I’m certain Leong means well, and the chick-raising program is a worthy cause. But prison is a massive, racist source of violence and harm. A film about incarcerated people, especially one purporting to advocate for them, needs to engage with that fact. 13 min.