As protests have swept the country over the last several months, awakening more people to the urgent call of Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 remains a constant reminder of the inequities of our systems. Disproportionately impacting people of color, COVID-19 is in particular ravaging people locked inside our prisons, which itself disproportionately impacts people of color.
Recently, these systems failed a dear friend of mine. An actor, singer, and filmmaker who I worked with inside a prison, Charles Lawrence, needlessly died of COVID while incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Indiana.
One of the films we worked on together, “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It,” was just nominated for an Emmy, marking the first time anyone in prison has made a nominated film. “Hard Truth” was co-directed by 13 men from inside prison and released by HBO. But many of these men don’t even know their film was nominated. My congratulatory emails haven’t been received, and I don’t know if or when they will. So many in our film and television community are looking for ways to create equity and inclusion, but there are still far too many ways to count how advantaged most filmmakers are compared to storytellers like the men I worked with in the prison, who deserve to share their stories.
I wanted to write about Charles, a member of our filmmaking community, in the hopes that we will begin to remember the names of people in prison dying needlessly, along with all the other names of people of color we’ve been remembering. Police brutality is part of a broader interconnected set of systems – the justice system, the prison system – all of which harm people like Charles, rather than provide care. No one deserves to be a statistic, and Charles is one of many in prison who has now received a death sentence that he was never meant to serve. He wasn’t even allowed to speak to his wife from the hospital before he passed away.
The first time I met Charles, he had this big smile. He was warm, curious, and honest to the point of directness that I found refreshing, and he remained that way every time I saw him, worked with him, and talked with him for the next five years. He had a pair of black wraparound sunglasses he wore rain or shine, and a deep, beautiful voice he used to sing in the prison choir. He brought so much integrity to all of the work we did together.
I developed a partnership with the prison to make a fiction film, writing, casting, and shooting inside its walls. This film was eventually called “O.G.,” and it co-stars Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”) and Theothus Carter, a young man sentenced to 65 years. Most of the cast of “O.G.” are currently incarcerated.
While developing “O.G.,” I taught a documentary filmmaking workshop, where I first met Charles, who would go on to act alongside Jeffrey in “O.G.” This workshop was so inspiring that we requested permission to make a second, nonfiction film, and were enthusiastically shocked when the prison agreed. This became “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It,” the first film released by a major network co-directed by people in prison.
The goal of both films was to collaborate closely with people in prison to tell their own stories. Together, we worked to make as true a portrait of life in prison as possible and to get these first-person stories out of the prison walls, which too often keep people silenced.
The two films show two sides of the story of incarceration: the men in “Hard Truth” direct their own film and interview each other in order to understand how they ended up in prison; “O.G.” tells the story on the other side — a man is preparing to leave prison after a 24-year sentence.
Charles was one of the few people who helped me make both of these films, and he is eminently memorable in both. I cast him in the role of Patrick in “O.G.,” and as Len Amato, former President of HBO Films, says, “The power of Charles Lawrence in ‘O.G.’ is amazing. His presence, authenticity, and integrity on screen transcend every moment he appears. He will be missed.”
At first, Charles was nervous about acting, and I knew he wouldn’t want to take off those sunglasses he wore around the clock. But I also sensed that he had such depth of feeling and emotion, and I wanted him to be comfortable expressing it, so we talked about taking them off constantly.
We talked about it while shooting “Hard Truth,” and auditioning and running lines for “O.G.” “Just try it, for me.” Finally, he took them off and looked at me. It was the first time in almost two years of knowing him that I had seen his eyes. “You have kind eyes,” I told him. He looked at me with amazement. “People always say I have scary eyes. That I have thug eyes.” I disagreed, and I promised he would look good. He shot his scene in “O.G.” with his sunglasses off, although he had them back on as soon as we wrapped.
The last time I wrote to Charles, I joked about the “lockdown” happening outside. Charles responded with his typical, upbeat, all-caps self: “SO HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE LOCKED DOWN?? SEE, ‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE IN PRISON, TO BE LOCKED UP’ (SMILE). TOILET PAPER! WE HAVE ‘PLENTY’ OF THAT HERE… THANKS FOR THE WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND YOUR RIGHT ‘WE WILL HAVE PLENTY OF STORIES TO TELL’ (SMILE).. STAY SAFE. UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN, I’M OUT. CHARLES..”
But I was not just reaching out to Charles to kid around. I was extremely worried about everyone in prisons at risk of COVID-19, as it began to spread across America.
What I didn’t know was that Charles was one of the people at risk. In fact, I thought he might be able to get out this year, but with a preexisting kidney condition, within two weeks of his last email, Charles was not treated in time, put on a ventilator for one day, and then passed away. I was shocked and heartbroken, as were countless others.
Another life lost. Another family in mourning.
Many of the men in the prison who worked with me reached out after Charles passed away with memories they asked me to share with his wife, Sanya, since they couldn’t reach her to support her themselves. Quentis, who was also a co-director of “Hard Truth,” was Charles’ partner for a lot of his interviews. “I have tears in my eyes, emotions of frustration rise,” he wrote. “My Brudda [Charles] did not have a death sentence or life without parole. So upon becoming detrimentally ill, he and all should be shown some compassion (let go). Bro turned his life around made a real transformation from hate in the streets to church and love and peace. And thats what truly matters.”
RuShawn and Franklin also worked on both of the films. Franklin suffered from COVID-19 in prison and has asthma, but he survived, although he has been experiencing longer-term health effects. He writes, “The changes he made in life were admirable and will be remembered and celebrated forever. What happened to Charles was wrong and something needs to be done about it. As people we need to come together and make the necessary and profound changes the world needs. So situations like Charles dont happen again.”
RuShawn poignantly remembers something that I noticed about Charles and his quiet leadership: “He encouraged me to be bigger than myself.”
On our last shoot of “Hard Truth,” I walked into the classroom and there was Charles, ready to work as always. But this time, he wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. He had a huge grin. “There you go, Madeleine.” We had a big laugh.
In Charles’ memory, Al’Jonan, a co-director of “Hard Truth” and an incarcerated poet, gathered memories of Charles from men around the prison and wrote them into a poem, which says it all.
“When I Think of Chuck”
When I think of Chuck –– I’ll be forever mindful of how we embraced each other for support, to discover ways through the fog and the despair that distorts…We both agreed, that people need to look within themselves for change, Chuck was truly a cultivator, of every type of grain…
When I think of Chuck –– I think about us training dogs and a moment we had, when he asked me for help and I was surprised he asked…it boosted my confidence because he affirmed my worth, he recognized my potential and caused it to emerge…
When I think of Chuck –– I recall that my guy was solid, he wasn’t real to one but everybody…He once told me to exploit my gifts but I didn’t want to sing in the choir, but he encouraged me to be bigger than myself, and helping others is vital…
When I think of Chuck –– he came off cool in any setting, kept a positive vibe and that smile, I won’t forget it…I believe he’d still be alive if the state would have acquitted his case, a time served plea to Chuck was a slap in the face…
When I think of Chuck –– I’m reminded of the weight pile, he told me I was lifting wrong, so of course I put the weight down, and this was the first time we met but he was genuine in his approach, he’s been a blessing ever since, and that was 17 years ago…
When I think of Chuck –– he was someone who wouldn’t allow you to settle, he was all about motivating you, to become better…His death disturbed me, boy was it heavy, he was my friend, and I miss him already…
When I think of Chuck –– I consider tough love and twenty years of memories, he was known as “Big Chuck” to most, but God knows he was a dear friend to me…Death separated the threads and unstitched the fabrics of what we built, but he will always be a part of my destiny, what I accomplish along this journey, is, his dream fulfilled…
When I think of Chuck –– he was bold and genuine in his own skin, he picked you up when he gave out hugs, but his true strength came from within…when someone like Chuck can be vulnerable and reveal the love he has for his wife, causes a hope to arise in you, because he made it all, seem alright…
Charles, Chuck, Sir Charles, we will miss you.
Dedicated to Charles’ wife, Sanya Lawrence, his daughter, JuDasha Sheets, his son, Charles Lawrence Jr, and his new grandson, Shavon Jr.
Contributors to this piece, in order of appearance: Charles Lawrence, Quentis Hardiman, Theothus Carter, Joseph Henderson, Franklin Cox, RuShawn Tanksley.
Contributors to the poem, written by Al’Jonan Coleman: Darnell Williams, Eric Simmons, RuShawn Tanksley, Ronald Covington, Corey Spurlock, Michael Vance, Mark Thacker, Steve Spears.
To support the effort to protect people in prison from Covid, view the JustLeadership campaign, launched with the help of Charles’ wife, Sanya.