The film builds its case piece by shattering piece, inspiring levels of shock and outrage that stun the viewer, leaving one shaken and disturbed before…
One grain of rice.
The jury that sent Tyrene Manson to jail for drug possession was never told the amount she allegedly possessed.
"Take one grain of rice off your plate," she told me. "That's the size that they found. But they never let the people on the jury know what size it was. I guess they kinda thought it was a whole heap."
And on the basis of that tiny amount of crack cocaine, found in a room used by several adults including a cocaine-addicted uncle, Tyrene Manson missed her Golden Gloves bout, was sent to prison, is in the third year of a four- to nine-year sentence, and may not be able to attend the Academy Awards ceremony March 26.
Yes, she's been invited to the Oscars, because "On the Ropes," a film about her and two other young boxers, has been nominated for best documentary feature.
"A grain of rice," I said. "That could just fall out of somebody's clothes."
"That's how," she said.
In the film, we learn that Tyrene shared the room with four others, including the two cousins she was raising. It also doubled as an upstairs living room, and was open to anyone who came into the house, including associates of her uncle Randy, a drug user.
Tyrene says she has never used drugs. At the time of her arrest, the police were searching for evidence against Randy, who had been arrested for selling drugs to undercover police. She was in training for the Golden Gloves competition, where she was considered a contender.
She spent the day of her scheduled fight in court and went directly to jail. "On the Ropes" indicates that her defense attorney was incompetent and that the judge was on autopilot. It is a measure of their attitudes that they allowed themselves to be filmed as part of an assembly-line process that sends poor defendants to jail with only a cursory nod in the direction of due process.
Tyrene Manson is still serving her sentence, but she has been moved from prison to a correctional facility, "sort of a halfway house," and is on a work-release program that allows her to work 9 to 5 as a secretary at the Leviticus Church of God in Christ, in Jamaica, Queens. That's where I telephoned her the other morning.
She has been invited to attend the Oscars, she said, but "they're saying 'no' because the only time you're allowed to go out of state is for a death in your immediate family."
Have you thought about appealing?
"That's what we're working on now. Gov. (George) Pataki is who we would have to appeal to. He doesn't know of me right now, but we're trying to get people involved, like city councilmen."
It would be poetic justice if Denzel Washington won as best actor for his portrayal of Hurricane Carter, a boxer framed for murder, on the same night that "On the Ropes" won as best documentary for the story of another young black boxer behind bars.
There is, however, some good news for Tyrene Manson these days. "On the Ropes" has been optioned by Warner Bros. as the source for a fictional film to be directed by Brad Silberling ("City of Angels").
The documentary tells three stories about young boxers in training at the same gym: Manson and George Walton, who seems to have pro potential, and Noel Santiago. In the film, Walton eventually signs with professional promoters, to the deep disappointment of Harry Keitt, a middle-aged trainer who started the gym as a way of rehabilitating himself after a murder conviction.
The Hollywood treatment will combine Manson's character with Walton's story, "and that's not all the good that came out of this," she told me, "because George and I are engaged now."
What about some of the others in the movie? Your uncle Randy?
"God has to bring me through right now," she said, "because I just got the word yesterday that my uncle passed away. While I was at church, they called me and they told me to pass the news on to his daughters who I was raising."
She was raising two sisters, Equana and Ebony Pile, and "the oldest one, Equana, she's about to be 21, she's getting ready to have a baby in April. When I got put in prison, she was still a virgin and then she lost her virginity and she's pregnant and we have to deal with that also."
She said it was possible her uncle died of an overdose: "My aunt passed away from AIDS, and her birthday was on Friday, so I believe that he probably got extra-high to get over that, you know. They say he just dropped dead as he was going to open up the door."
Manson's next hearing for a reduction in sentence is in October. She continues to train as a boxer, she said, although the correctional facility doesn't have proper equipment as the prison did. She has a Golden Gloves match scheduled for March 16, but still hasn't received permission to participate in it.
Her last appeal was rejected in January 1999. "And then I just said I'm not even gonna fight it anymore. I'm tired.
"I've met, like, good-hearted people who want to help out - so many people tell me that attorneys are looking at the film and they wanna help me, but you know, no one has ever stepped up to do pro bono. I'm not even appealing at this point, just asking for the sentence to be cut to time served, because it's almost three years now."
For evidence the size of a grain of rice, and good reason to suppose its source was a convicted drug dealer who lived in the same house.
"I just want this society to say, like, how much more do I owe them?"
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