Buckle up! With the undisputed “Godfather of Hip-Hop” at the center of the documentary feature “Lockdown USA”, audiences are in for a wild ride. Camera crews follow Simmons as he helms the fight against the Rockefeller drug laws. The resulting film reaches the epic cultural heights of a Joe Louis boxing match. Directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Michael Skolnik cleverly begin and end their engaging, educational and enthralling exposé of the battle to end the “War on Drugs” at the Simmons mansion. Here the viewer sees the rare private side of the man who founded Def Jam records and Phat Farm clothing, and sent rap into the mainstream. When asked by the disembodied voice behind the camera why he is taking on this uphill battle, Simmons replies, “I find that’s what makes me sleep best.” And so begins the ninety-minute journey where viewers track Simmons’ 2003 campaign to repeal the very laws that have deeply impacted the very community that helped to propel his success on the eve of their thirty-year anniversary.
Part Oprah show confessional and hard-hitting “Streetfight” style doc, “Lockdown” seeks to equally entertain and educate the audience about the hardships caused by these harsh drug laws. Making no bones about it, this film’s argument is clearly one-sided: sentencing non-violent first time drug offenders to fifteen years to life isn’t working. In the thirty years since these laws were enacted, “Lockdown” is quick to point out that they have failed to incarcerate major drug dealers or criminal king pins, the very targets intended for these laws. Cut into the documentary narrative are weak animation sequences. However, they do the job of instructing the audience about the negative impacts of these laws, citing such statistics as 93% of all those incarcerated from these laws are people of color and explaining that even rapists receive lesser sentences than those caught by the Rockefeller laws. Yet as the film follows Simmons deeper into the fight, it gathers momentum as numerous politicians, celebrities and even family members whose loved ones have been taken from them due to the laws are showcased.
Ever the media mogul, Simmons valiantly attempts to get his message heard by calling upon his celebrity roots and reaching into his own pocket to raise funds. Simmons begins by contacting New York City radio stations, meeting with local kids, and organizing a City Hall rally in June of 2003 attended by the likes of Mariah Carey, P. Diddy, and 50 cent in an effort to reach the youth who are most affected by these laws. Watching Simmons wheel and deal with his heart on his sleeve is undoubtedly more entertaining than any Donald Trump show. Suspense builds as viewers watch a dressed down Simmons meet with Governor Pataki to see if a bill to repeal these laws can be brought to Albany in time before the session ends for the year.
When Simmons finally meets up with Wanda Best — the mother of five whose husband has been sentenced to 15 years to life for unwittingly accepting a neighbor’s drug filled Fedex package—the film’s poignancy hits its peak. Filmmakers Chaiklin and Skolnik weave the Best’s story into the narrative to highlight the painful impact these sentences have on families. Over several months, cameras follow Wanda into her home, where her daughters and grandchild talk about missing their patriarch, and then on her journey as she appeals to Simmons himself to use his influence to bring her husband, Darryl, home.
Built on solid editing and an ending that only can be found in the movies, “Lockdown” succeeds in convincing audiences that the War on drugs can’t be won when families are damaged in the process. While the abysmal music score absolutely should have done a better job to complement Simmons’ story, in the end “Lockdown” manages to do what decent documentaries should: entertain, educate and reopen dialogue where and when it is needed.