The Sentence | Rudy Valdez | Urbanworld 2018
Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence opens in 2008 with a simple call from mother Cindy Shank to her oldest daughter Autumn before 6-year-old Autumn’s dance recital. There’s an impersonal pre-recorded message that interrupts the call every few minutes – something along the lines of “This call is coming from a federal penitentiary” a la Serial. As if the Valdez family needed a reminder.
Several years after her post-high school boyfriend Alex was murdered because of his drug dealing and trafficking operation, Cindy was brought up on conspiracy charges by the feds – with a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence because of her negligible knowledge of the drug dealing. This practice, known as the “girlfriend problem“, is the result of drug laws that have been in effect since the mid-1980s. The initial trial, where she turned down a 13-year plea offer, was not long after Alex’s death, and the initial charges were thrown out or dismissed; by the time of the conspiracy charge sentencing in the early 2000s, Cindy had started a family with Adam. Their three daughters – Autumn, Anna, and Ava – were 6, 2, and under a year at the time.
What started as a video journal or diary of sorts turned into a nearly 10-year feature documentary, showing how mandatory minimum prison sentences affect not just those imprisoned but their families – without getting too preachy or bogged down in stats. Rudy, the youngest of the adult Valdez children, began recording small moments of Cindy’s three daughters whenever he visited his family in Lansing, Michigan as something to show Cindy when she got out of prison. But over time, the videos slowly changed from dance recitals and messages for Cindy from the girls to the intimate – an occasional visit with Cindy hours away by plane and car (as she was moved from state to state and prison to prison several times), the impact on Cindy’s immediate family, siblings, and parents, and Rudy’s turn to advocating for reforming drug laws and sentencing while also seeking clemency from President Obama for Cindy in 2014.
The Sentence is a personal and intimate documentary, sprinkled with a few legal experts briefly addressing relevant aspects of the legal system (drug laws, mandatory minimums, etc.). Personally, I feel it would have benefited from a little more legal and statistical background, as well as more of a focus on the Valdez family outside of Rudy’s parents and his three nieces. Granted, Rudy addressed this focus during the post-screening Q&A – namely that he was able to film when he was visiting from New York, and his siblings didn’t all live in the Lansing area. Still, it’s worth watching in light of discussions of mandatory minimums, unequal sentencing, and justice for the wrongly imprisoned in recent years.
The Sentence screened at the 2018 Urbanworld Film Festival; it premieres on HBO on October 15th and opens at Metrograph for a limited Oscar-qualifying run on October 12th with a showing at IFC Center on the 16th as part of the Stranger Than Fiction Fall 2018 season. It has previously played in some area festivals, including the NY Latino Film Festival and the Montclair Film Festival.