I’m a Fugitive from a (Georgia) Chain Gang! Verso fantasie di evasione colorblind
American cinema and television have always been fascinated with prison stories, showing an
enduring penchant for narratives derived from texts written by actual convicts.
In the 1930’s, when the first prison movies were produced by Hollywood, the representation of the
correctional system was informed by two main discourses, namely the assertion of a national policing
power through a network of surveillance technologies under the newly-born FBI, and the historical
and geographical contiguity of plantation enslaved labor and prison farms and chain gangs. Catering
to white urban middle-class tastes for “lam stories” of fugitives, the most notable and successful
motion picture belonging to the prison movie category of Great Depression (along with a handful of
productions such as The Big House; 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Hell’s Highway) was Mervin Leroy’s
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The film, which told the story of a white convict leased to
chain gangs in Georgia and of his two flights from prison, was based on Robert Elliott Burns’
autobiographical account I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (1932).
This paper will explore the seminal significance of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang in a
twofold analysis. On the one hand, it will show how by both exposing chain gangs as direct
descendants from plantations and by framing his narrative against the rule of American law through
the use of the slave narrative genre, Burns’ “true story” and its movie adaptation can be read as
straddling the racial divide within the U.S. penal system in the 1930’s. On the other, it will argue that
I Am a Fugitive can be seen as initiating a lineage of prison narratives based on the
autobiographical/memoiristic accounts of ex-convicts that would thrive well on the big screen throughout the 1970’s and 80’s (Escape from Alcatraz, 1979; Attica, 1980) and would then transition to quality Tv series beginning from the 1990’s.
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