Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo showcases bull-headed Oklahoma "tradition" | None | Uncle Barky's Bytes

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Cinemax's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo showcases bull-headed Oklahoma "tradition"

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Bradley Beesley directs Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.

Only in Oklahoma. Too flowery at times and profoundly troubling at others, Cinemax's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo nonetheless is an overall gripping look at the world's only behind-the-walls prison rodeo.

But its opening montage of inmates being flipped, gored or trampled begs a question that's addressed only fleetingly near the end of this 90-minute documentary (Thursday, Sept. 17th at 6 a.m. and also available on demand).

"I've even seen inmates get killed," says one veteran rodeo-goer who seems as though he just might relish a replay. "Get a horn run plumb through their body and come out the back side."

Another spectator takes a more judgmental approach. "It's barbaric in a way," he says. "I mean, there's a lot of gladiator quality to it because a lot of these guys get hurt."

It's been going on since 1940 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. And since 2006, female inmates have been allowed to compete. Thus the Sweethearts in the title, although the most vivid competitor is convicted murderer Danny Liles, who keeps saying he relishes every aspect of it.

"This is what we wait for all year long. Come out here and get your nuts smashed by a mechanical bull," he says at a practice session.

The film chronicles the 2007 prison rodeo, which attracted the usual jam-packed crowd. But much of it -- too much of it -- is an at times redundant buildup to the event. Other than Danny, director Bradley Beesley mostly personalizes four of the female competitors, all of whom have sob stories from within the confines of the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, OK.

Jamie Brooks is doing 30 years for shooting and killing a robbery victim during her teenage years. She's served 13 of those years and is up for parole. This time it's a good outcome -- for her at least. Then Jamie screws up again and is tossed into lockdown. The particulars of her offense are never revealed. Nor is Jamie asked about them once she's back in the general population, but off the rodeo team.

There's also a tearful reunion among Brandy "Foxie" Witte and the family she ran away from. And Rhonda Buffalo gets another visit from her teenage daughter, who once wanted nothing to do with her.

Sweethearts points out that Oklahoma has more women prisoners per capita than any other state. And that 80 percent of them are mothers. Everyone interviewed supposedly has seen the light. Still, it's hard to work up an abundance of sympathy, even if that sometimes seems to be the primary objective of the film.

The rodeo itself serves that purpose, though. It's queasily brutal, particularly the "Money the Hard Way" grand finale in which $100 is affixed to a bull's horn. Inmates are tossed like rag dolls in pursuit of it while the crowd oohs and ahs. In another rodeo game, "Bull Poker," a male inmate emerges with a hole in his cheek.

Dogged Danny, a veteran of 13 prison rodeos, says it's "probably part of the allure, is knowin' that you can die."

Then he reiterates once again, "I enjoy it."

Sweethearts easily could be about 15 minutes shorter, or more probing in the time it takes. Do the inmates feel exploited? Is the crowd there for all the wrong reasons? Instead we keep getting variations on Danny's theme. The rodeo frees his soul, which apparently malfunctioned when he fatally stabbed a victim seven times in the chest before robbing him.

Danny is now 47, heavily tattooed and missing a few teeth. And he "sure would do it differently" if he could live his life anew.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma should stop using prisoners, whatever their offenses, as cannon fodder. Ending the last remaining behind-walls rodeo might buck "tradition." But as Sweethearts shows -- intentionally or not -- it's long past time for a last roundup.