It’s no wonder that America’s most-watched television dramas draw their material from the country’s chronic “war on crime.” Reduced to its most sensational elements, the criminal justice system is a fount of melodramas featuring violation, heartbreak and retribution. But beyond the snarling punks and streetwise cops of fictional lore is a far more prosaic — and yet far more suspenseful — story of ordinary people struggling to free themselves of poverty, addiction and the legacies of broken families. As shown in award-winning filmmaker Tod Lending’s new film, Omar & Pete, they struggle ultimately to free themselves of the dehumanizing cycle that takes them from crime on Baltimore’s streets to prison and back again.
Left: Omar prays in prison yard.
With extraordinary cooperation from the Maryland Department of Corrections (MDOC), as well as from the subjects themselves — Leon “Omar” Mason and William “Pete” Duncan — Lending has crafted an intimate portrait of two men, battered but not beaten after lifetimes of crime and prison, seeking the inner strength to turn their lives around. Omar & Pete also provides an insider’s view of innovative efforts in Maryland, and nationally through such organizations as Outreach Extensions, to build the social and community support that will allow more Omars and Petes to succeed. But the reality in Omar & Pete is as stark as the one facing the film’s subjects: without that inner strength, support systems are of little avail.
Oscar®-nominated and Emmy award-winning filmmaker Tod Lending has crafted a feature documentary that does not flinch from the achingly personal and socially charged challenges facing newly released prisoners, especially if — like Omar — they have spent long or multiple terms in prison, have been addicts and are returning to poverty.
When we first meet Omar, he’s incarcerated in the Maryland Transitional Center prison, just six weeks shy of completing 10 years for armed robbery. At age 47, he has spent his last 30 years in and out of prison — never longer than six months at a time on the outside. Like many of those in prison with him, he had for years simply accepted prison as a part of his life. His real focus had been his drug addiction, whether in jail or not. But this time is different for Omar. With the perspective of age, he grieves for a life bereft of family, community and self-respect. He’s tired of drugs controlling him, tired of the dehumanization of incarceration. Most telling, he’s caught the older inmate’s fright of dying in prison.
What’s also different is that Omar has found Islam and has been using it in jail to discipline himself. He’s also volunteered, as part of his parole, for Maryland’s Reentry Program, which seeks to create a more successful model for helping long-term and chronically recidivist prisoners reenter society. As his release dawns, Omar is determined, and brimming with confidence and plans. He also has support from an extended family of siblings and nieces, especially from his sister, Sharon, who are ready to welcome him back.
Left: William “Pete” Duncan
Interestingly enough, when Omar moves into a transitional house, he ends up rooming with Pete Duncan, who is not only a neighborhood running buddy from “back in the day,” but shares a virtually parallel 30-year history of street crime and incarceration. If anything, Pete was more insistently recidivist than Omar — he never spent more than three months on the outside until his last release. “I was the guy either selling you drugs or robbing you,” he tells a group of soon-to-be-released inmates, “and it didn’t matter if I was in prison or out on the street.” Now a record 10 months free and sober when Omar comes to the house, Pete takes on a heartfelt if somewhat querulous mentoring role. Pete has a grizzled, not always clearly articulated, determination to stay out of prison, yet expresses many doubts and cautions. Omar is upbeat and confident — and very articulate.
Omar’s confidence seems well-placed. He works multiple jobs and starts two small businesses, which, though they fail, demonstrate his drive and imagination. When he marks six months of freedom, there’s a celebration across his supporting network of family and professionals, including caseworkers LaTonya Johnson and Marshall Collins and parole agent, Kimberly Lewis. It is, for Omar, a climax in his effort to show he can make it. Shortly after, he relapses into drug use.
Omar gets another chance in detox, but the Reentry Program workers make it harshly clear he’s risking jail. Pete, meanwhile, wrestles with feeling he’s played too much the approving friend and not enough the disciplined counselor with Omar. He also reveals his doubts about Omar’s readiness: he’s too confident, makes too many big plans and is a little too proud. Pete knows staying clean is a grinding battle of small and daily victories that requires vigilance, humility and realism.
The film seems to bear Pete out, and explains the sharp skepticism of Omar’s caseworkers, as Omar goes through renewed efforts, new high points, and two more drug relapses. In his defense, Omar points out that his lapses don’t involve other crimes besides drug use, and that he is sincerely working to treat the “disease” of his addiction. But the caseworkers and counselors, from their own experience, know the problem isn’t Omar’s sincerity. The problem is that Omar, like many addicts, has become a master of self-deception. He is so practiced and even glib at producing the words and attitudes needed to get what he wants that he has difficulty knowing who he is when the spotlight of counselors and family looks away — and difficulty therefore finding within himself the reason to stay clean and sober.
Maybe Omar hasn’t yet reached “bottom.” Or, maybe he reaches it when, after the third relapse, he is sent back to prison for another 19 months. On re-entering the prison he so lately left with so much bravado, visibly seething with shame and anger, Omar for the first time demands the filmmaker stop shooting. It’s a heartbreaking moment.
Pete, meanwhile, marks two milestones. He gets a job as a community health counselor and moves out of the transition house and into his own place with a new girlfriend. The two are clearly excited to build new lives for themselves. Pete can’t help but be full of smiles, but he also remembers to repeat his mantra: vigilance, humility, realism. Omar emerges from prison in time to watch his friend receive an award at a dinner given for ex-convicts who have stayed out of prison. Pete, now three years out, gives a characteristically modest speech.
Omar is no longer quite the same man we first met in the film. Though still committed to treating his addiction, his confidence and optimism have been replaced by a new defensiveness and a feeling he’s been victimized by the very people who have been working to help him. He’s tired of “being told what to do” and decides to go more his own way. Is this the self-deceiving Omar moving off toward his addict’s doom? Or is there hope that Omar will finally take responsibility for his recovery?
“By humanizing prisoners and the complex challenges they face in re-entering society, we wanted to challenge common public perceptions of people like Pete and Omar,” says director/producer Tod Lending. “We also want viewers to understand that more than the fate of the individuals is at stake, and to comprehend the individual, family and community pathways that can lead to social change.”