By Rory L. Aronsky | March 8, 2007

With “Bad Boys of Summer,” their first feature-length documentary, a theme has now emerged in the films of Tiller Russell & Loren Mendell that is only found out now by watching San Quentin prisoners play baseball.

Each of their documentaries has been about a certain sport. “Cockfight” was about cockfighting, “Change Up” was about two teenaged baseball players from the Dominican Republic who hoped to make it in the United States, and “One Strong Arm” chronicled a young man who made the most of his disability by participating in the sport of arm wrestling.

“Bad Boys of Summer” cements what the two filmmakers are after. By the way they film the action of the above-mentioned sports, Russell and Mendell like the games and competitions a lot. They want to get closer and closer to the action, to show audiences more than what they’ve already seen in other films. But for them, it’s also about watching their subjects forge an identity with these sports, to become inspired by what they do, to perhaps become even better people because of those sports, and it’s all evident within the people they’ve known. For the San Quentin baseball players in a film that makes the biggest case for Russell and Mendell to be more widely known than ever, being a better person comes through baseball because what else is there to do day after day in a society that includes bars and locks and guards?

The men who sign up and are accepted for this particular season of San Quentin Giants baseball run the gamut of crimes committed. Chris “Stretch” Rich has a 26-year-to-life sentence for killing his wife. Dave Miller, who could have easily made a career out of being Robert Duvall’s stand-in and sound-alike, shot and killed his uncle Jerry. William “Israel” Amos has been serving time since 1986 for attempted murder.

But even with all of this information given, it’s not hard to want to know more about the lives of these men within the walls of San Quentin, especially with what seems like unprecedented access with shots of various cell blocks, the baseball field, parts of the prison where the men work, and even the canteen where they get supplies, including toothpaste and ground coffee. Every question that could be asked about these prisoners and what baseball does for them are easily answered, especially in the form of Earl Smith, the prison’s chaplain and baseball coach, who is the kind of person that every prison hopefully has, that every troubled person can reach out for, because he is a force of goodness, someone who has been where these men are, but pulled away from going further into his own darkness when he realized what might have happened to him if he had remained who he was. He’s thoughtful, unrelenting in what he expects from his team. They have to want to be the best, to want to win, and, Smith hopes, to be transformed by what they are when they play for this team. And this is a team that crosses the many lines that are well-established at San Quentin, those of race, religion, and certainly emotions. A few minutes are given over to showing what kind of men make up the prison population and how they’re separate, such as the black men on the basketball court, the white men working out at the outdoor gym, and nothing much to be said between any of the groups.

But it’s amazing how, despite the separation lines, these men play baseball with everything they have, and don’t mind that the guy sitting next to them is someone not to converse with off the field. Every teammate is there because they want to be; it’s what they have, and what they make the most of and feel like they’re someone, as one prisoner notes by talking about how he feel like a real person because of it. And, Russell and Mendell are most fortunate to have found a man like Smith who is the most dominant force on camera.

At this point, Russell and Mendell could take a number of other sports and make more documentaries just as inspirational, just as thought-provoking (with many questions to be raised and debated among whomever gets to see “Bad Boys of Summer”), and just as awe-inspiring. As if they couldn’t go any higher in what they’ve already achieved with their previous documentaries, they’ve definitely gone higher.

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