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Short Films in Focus: The Sentence of Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson served the longest prison sentence for a non-violent offender in Michigan’s history. In 1996, Thompson was busted for a marijuana drug deal that the police used as an excuse to search his house for firearms. They found one gun that was never used nor spoken about during the deal. At the time of the making of this film, he had been behind bars ever since and faced one last chance for clemency from Governor Gretchen Whitmer. If this plea for clemency fails, he will stay behind bars until 2038. Of course, today, being busted for marihuana possession seems ludicrous, especially since it has become a billion-dollars-a-year industry since legalization. 

If you don’t want to know the end of this story just yet, I highly suggest you stop reading and watch the film. Scroll down for the link (it’s not a Vimeo link this time). 

Haley Elizabeth Anderson and Kyle Thrash’s documentary “The Sentence of Michael Thompson” follows Thompson’s daughter, Rashawnda, and his lawyer as they try to appeal to the parole board and, through them, the governor. The hearing eventually takes place via Zoom where many members of Michael’s family and friends try to convince the parole board of Michael’s character and the positive effect that he has had on everyone who knows him. “How long do we usually let them (the defendants) speak?” one board member asks before Thompson enters the room. “Five minutes.” “That’s too long. How about two minutes.” 

The absurdity of this little exchange is certainly not lost on Thompson’s lawyer and is one of the moments that helps build suspense in the viewer while watching the film. Despite the overwhelming evidence in Thompson’s favor, we know from the history of race in America, from watching the news cycle and seeing many other crime documentaries throughout the years that things don’t always go the way they should. There is still a cold, calculated side to the bureaucracy that holds the keys to Thompson’s fate, the side of government that only sees numbers on a spreadsheet and in approval ratings, never seeing through the numbers at the people on the other side. 

Anderson and Thrash structure the film in such a way that we can only hope Thompson is set free. Much of the film is spent watching Rashawnda living her life with her family, as they await the birth of another baby. She buys lotto tickets and explains that she likes waiting and seeing if her number will be the winner. The wait this time has a different context and is not based on random chance, but decency. The lawyer, meanwhile, wonders why no one is returning her calls for an update on Thompson’s hearing. No other state does this. Are they avoiding her calls?

One cannot watch this film without feeling a wide range of emotions. Thompson is a good person. Everyone around him is a good person. Everyone knows what the right outcome should be. “The Sentence of Michael Thompson” is both a profoundly moving story of a family that needs to come back together and be whole again as well as a rallying cry for other wrongfully incarcerated individuals who were sentenced behind bars for something most of us can do freely now. 

Go to https://www.mtclemency.com/ to learn more information.

Q&A with directors Kyle Thrash and Haley Elizabeth Anderson (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

How did you hear of Michael Thompson’s story and when did you feel it was ripe for a documentary?

KYLE THRASH: The nonprofit The Last Prisoner project reached out to me about working on a story. They’re an amazing organization that works to help the 40,000 non-violent people that are incarcerated for cannabis offenses in our country. I got to know Michael and his story well and started to record phone calls which we put out to raise attention for his clemency hearing. Tens of thousands of people wrote letters to the governor in support of Michaels clemency and Michael was released in January 2021. When looking at his story I felt like the injustice was glaring but Michael’s spirit and his vulnerability made me feel like people would connect with him and his family and the letters in support of him was further proof of that connection.

Did either of you ever have any moments of doubt before or after the clemency hearing?

HALEY ELIZABETH ANDERSON: Both. Even though Michael had extraordinary support from his community, experiencing the very cold matter of fact way the clemency board approached his statements was eye-opening. You can hear it in the film, where the board insists that Michael has a lot of time to plead his case in two minutes. Kim, Michael’s lawyer, is sort of taken aback by it. It’s life and death and there’s only a two-minute window to fight for your life. It was like that for Michael every day for 25 years. After hearing that, I felt that there was a big chance that it could go either way. It felt very tense at that moment. I think that’s one of the more revealing scenes in the film, one that draws the curtain back on what the justice system is. Lives and families hang on these very small windows of opportunity.

On the morning of his release, how did you come to a decision on how to film that? 

KT: Logan the cinematographer, Haley, and I talked a lot about how we could hold on the shot and not be intrusive. We settled on a long lens and a ladder and tried to shoot it objectively to let the moment play out. A lot of the film is photographed on a tripod so the audience can meditate on the facts and emotion of the story and not have handheld operating influence anything. At the core our film is a father and daughter story so we tried to just share that moment in a quiet and sensitive way.

There are many approaches a documentary filmmaker could make with this, from focusing on the injustices or laying blame, but your film is more anchored in the family and the need for a family to come back together. Was that an easy place to land or were there greater challenges in the editing process?

HEA: We brainstormed a significant amount before settling on this approach. Focusing on the familial was a way to make this issue very accessible. We wanted very much for people to experience what these sentences do to a family so that people could see themselves in Michael and his daughter. Seeing the story from this angle, we believed would somehow make it feel more immediate for our audience. The film is a call to action and we felt it might be easier for them to act and to want to get involved. We always believed in the importance of the human experience. There are a lot of statistics, issues, etc. but we wanted these issues to come to life for our audience.

I met Michael Thompson when he came to the Chicago Critics Film Festival. He said he can’t hear the song at the end or watch the film because he lived it. Were you with him when he first saw the film? If so, what was that like?

KT: We were still in a covid times so we sent it to him to watch and we zoomed after. As you can imagine it was difficult for him to watch given what he and his family has been through and we just talked about different aspects of the film. What he was surprised by and what he liked. He was happy with it but it was a lot. Overall though, Michael has been able to use it as a platform to educate and share his experience whether at film festivals or other events and positive things have come from that. He’s started the Michael Thompson Clemency project and is helping to advocate for others who are incarcerated and work on prison reform.

What’s next for you?

HEA: I’m currently working on another documentary. 

KT: We’re both working on other documentary projects while working to get this documentary out to audiences and elected officials with the non-profits. Michael received an award from the ACLU this week for his work on clemency and his non-profit. At the event he spoke alongside Oregon Governor Kate Brown who last week pardoned over 45,000 people for simple cannabis conviction charges, which was a huge step. So we’re hoping to continue to raise awareness alongside Michael.

Link to the film: https://www.docplus.com/thesentence/ 

Michael Thompson’s appearance at the Chicago Critics Film Festival:


Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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