Performer and law person Dizzy Von Damn! just passed the Washington State Bar Exam, so she has chosen a film that combines her great passions in life: juvenile justice & The Rock. Football may not “have the power to correct foundational systemic inequalities,” but The Rock’s smile sure does.
I wanted to re-view this movie for two really different reasons. The first is that ten years later I work in juvenile justice, and so I was curious how my perspective would be changed. The second is that (at least) ten years later I am still deeply, cellularly, obsessed with The Rock. Let’s deal with the latter first.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a walking starburst effect that they put on smiles to show you the smile is perfect. He is 100% charming and I live in constant low-grade dread that someone will expose a scandal that will ruin him and I will be devastated. The recent Vin Diesel feud was a dark time in my home; I have a weird nerd respect for Diesel and will watch just about any movie he makes (would really like to see a F&F/Witch Hunter crossover— imagine the possibilities!) but I would literally keel over dead if The Rock ever looked into my eyes. In fact, that’s my chosen method. If I’m ever on life support and there’s no hope, please just pry open my eyelids and let him look at me till I flatline.
Someone once asked me if he was on my list, as in the list of celebs you get a free pass for (which btw I would like to see this free pass, because like is it a punch card? Are the punch holes dick-shaped? Is the very act of hole-punching so meta rn that I have once again made myself uncomfortable with nothing but my own thoughts? Answers: maybe, liney face, yes). He is not on my list, because he is completely asexual to me. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a handsome man. When he’s got a crisp suit on and he’s doing the cuff-buttoning thing, I can definitely appreciate that. But my love for The Rock is a pure love: I appreciate him more as a person. I like the way he treasures his family, the way he can be cute with and sad about his lost puppy (RIP Brutus), how he makes time for fans, and posts encouraging messages basically hourly. He works really hard, and he believes—and makes me believe—that we all can do better.
A huge part of his appeal is his relentless positivity and dedication to the grind. He recently launched “The Rock Clock,” which is an app you can download to help you get up daily, and track your progress toward a goal. If you’re very ambitious, you can use it to get up at the same time as he does each day. I personally would not survive an attempt. But it’s enormously popular, like everything he does, and I spend what is probably an inappropriate amount of time thinking about why he is so successful. Here’s my theory: He’s hasn’t forgotten what life was like before he was The Rock. If your goal is to quit smoking, win the big game, lose 5 pounds, lose 50 pounds, save $100, get a job… The Rock is going to encourage you because those are all good goals, and they are all hard, but The Rock also knows the grind is what makes you strong. It’s what makes you a winner.
So instead of a folder of pictures of his rippling muscles (which let’s face it are massive and terrifying more than anything), I have a folder of pictures of his cheat days, because those are a special favorite of mine. I like to see him indulge; he deserves it. My phone background is a picture of The Rock with pancakes.
The premise of this movie is that The Rock is a juvenile detention counselor-cum-football coach. He turns a bunch of “losers” into a team of Mustangs. They learn to get along in life by getting along on the gridiron. It’s your standard tearjerker/sports movie, with a couple of gang shootings casually thrown in.
I don’t remember how I responded to this movie the first time around, but probably I just accepted its emotional manipulation and went to the bathroom during the extended football parts.
The movie starts out with text that is not promising. I didn’t get the exact phrasing, but the numbers are correct: something like “There are 120,000 youth incarcerated in the US and 75% of them will return to prison or die on the streets.” WOW. WHAT? So that’s not true, nor was it true in 2006. Where did they get these numbers?
This movie is based on the Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention facility, apparently in 1990. Camp Kilpatrick was located in the Malibu hills, but the movie makes it look like it’s high desert. Everyone is always just a little bit sweaty. The closest youth incarceration data to 1990 I could find was for 1991, and the total number of residential placements (private and public) totaled 93,732 youth. While that does include some non-responding facilities, and doesn’t include juveniles held in adult jails, prisons, or police lockups, the difference would be unlikely to amount to over 26,000 youth. 
Notably, the “one-day count” for juveniles in residential placement fell 52% between 1997 and 2014, where it was reported at 50,821. In Washington, the one-day count was 477 on 1/11/2016. But don’t feel too proud, because 103 of those youth were in King County, where we’ve been fighting for “no new youth jail” and failing… And even worse, 60% of those youth were positively evaluated for mental health and chemical dependency needs. In 2004, only 61% of facilities nationwide reported providing onsite treatment services. In 2014, that number just SKYROCKETED to 63%. Two whole percents! We’re doing great work for our kids, America. But what is treatment services? Is it pills in a paper cup? Is it Ala-teen meetings, which btw taught me more about using, delinquency, and self-harm than I knew before I started them? Is it a football coach who will call you a loser like no one’s ever called you a loser before, just matter of fact because GUESS WHAT LOSER you have been one till now, and then quietly care for each of you until you can care for each other, and win?
It would be impossible to know if 75% of youth adjudicated of criminal offenses recidivated. There is no national recidivism rate for juveniles, and most states do no talk to one another. Each state’s justice system is completely different in its data tracking, administration, and efficacy.  Like unhappy families, they are fucked up in uniquely challenging ways. But, for example, you can see that in Washington, recidivism is tracked in some ways by looking at the number of “priors” listed on the demographic population report for Washington’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration. But there’s also significant research showing that many youthful offenders simply “grow out of it;” that the impulse control they lack at 15 develops by age 25 and they settle into a life like anyone else’s.
Demographically speaking, the movie was probably accurate. The team is primarily youth of color; black, Hispanic and Latino, Samoan. There is one white boy. While juvenile detention rates in King County, WA have continuously dropped over the last decade (as they should when crime continues to drop), the proportion of youth of color in detention remains largely the same. Only one-tenth of the county’s youth population is black, but black youth made up almost half of the youth detention population in 2014. Almost 70% of the youth admitted to detention in 2014 were youth of color. 46% of those in King County’s jails or juvenile detention in July 2016 were people of color. Black and Native populations are represented in secure facilities at a rate of 35% and 3% respectively.  But Hispanic and Latino people do not even appear as a category; they are “identified racially as White in these data.”  Where White arrest and incarceration rates are inflated, the results necessarily mislead people as to the existence and magnitude of racial disproportionality. Contrast this with local census data, which shows that not even 7% of the county population is black, nearly 10% is Hispanic or Latino, and only 1% is Native American, while nearly 70% identifies as White.
So where does the movie take us? It shows us a boy get out, and die. His cousin sees it happen, then at the urging of his older friend (I believe we are to assume a gang member), Cousin Willie tries to exact revenge, but chickens out. He runs home and finds his mother has been beaten up by her boyfriend, for what is clearly not the first or even third time. When he raises his fist in front of Willie, in front of Willie’s little brother, it’s just too much. Willie, a child still holding the gun from the failed revenge attempt, shoots him.
This is what lands Willie at Camp Kilpatrick. Compounded trauma. He’s then abandoned when his mother takes the little brother because she doesn’t want him to end up like Willie. He’s alone, and he’s a criminal. He’s a loser. His girlfriend doesn’t respond to his letters because she doesn’t get them; her father isn’t willing to stake her future on supporting his.
We get shots of The Rock leaving a solitary cell after talking to one kid and looking around to see the needful eyes of at least eight more. He comforts one kid sitting alone outside after a failed visiting day and sees another, just out of reach.
A mother tells her son, “I’m not the one who put you here, you put yourself here.” Later, he cries. “I just hate her. I want her to love me.” Look, I’ve been a kid and I’ve been an adult, and I’m going to voice a controversial opinion here: parents say stuff like this a lot, and I see where they get it, but don’t agree with it. Whenever I meet a young person in trouble, my first thought is, “How have we failed you that you are here?” Kids can only act with the tools they have been given. They can’t build something better than they have the tools for.
The brains of young people are so different; they are enormously emotionally overdeveloped, but have like pea brains for psychosocial capacity. Relating to others, cultural norms and etiquette, regulation of their wild and crazy ~*fEeLiNgS*~, and the very concepts of time and consequence are difficult for them. Everything feels serious, but they cannot extrapolate the inevitable results of their own actions. They are impulsive and love a reward. They want to be independent, but are easily influenced. Many (so so many) of the things we criminalize are normative behavior. But even in cases where it is not normative, where what the kid did is ugly and wrong— every child is worth more than the worst thing they have done, and that doesn’t stop being true, like magic, on an 18th birthday.
This need to take responsibility for our roles is evident in the first game scene. The Rock coaches too aggressively, and the team doesn’t respond well. But he doesn’t tell them that they played badly; or, he doesn’t tell them that only they made mistakes. He says instead “We made a lot of mistakes, all of us. Me too.” And then he follows it up with he wouldn’t trade his team for the winning team. It’s okay to make mistakes; everyone does. He doesn’t believe that the other team is better. The loss feels serious, and that’s ok— but it doesn’t mean that everything’s over, and he’s giving up on them. If The Rock believes in you, you have no choice but to believe in yourself.
So The Rock turns them into a football team, and there are challenges. For example, the head of the detention center thinks they can’t handle the disappointment. For example, no one wants to play against them. For example, someone gets shot at one of their games and the whole thing almost gets shut down. But the point they have to learn is it’s the hard work that makes them strong; that they shouldn’t give up on what they want, they can handle the disappointment and they can lean on one another and win.
These programs are successful; this was a real program that was recently shut down when Camp Kilpatrick closed for “renovation.” There is no indication the program will be reinitiated, though it has been shown to be beneficial (if not a “panacea-“which duh, study writers. I know we as Americans worship football but I don’t know that it has the power to correct foundational systemic inequities.)
Ultimately, The Gridiron Gang fictionalizes a true story (there are scenes from the documentary in the credits that are pretty directly reenacted in the film) in such a way that I realized it too, like the Rock Clock, is a vessel for The Rock’s most basic message. It’s reductive, because it minimalizes the unbearable weight of systemic injustices and the barriers that some people have to fight against while others do not, but I don’t think that’s fatal to the message because it applies to those issues as well.
Whether your goal is to get back to school, make a life for your family, or in some (albeit seemingly Sisyphean) fashion call out and break down the inequality that functions to elevate the heteronormative, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white male supremacy— you have to get up and grind.
 Similarly, the 2002 Juvenile Residential Facility Census, which was published in June 2006 (just in time for those cap credits) reported 102,388 offenders younger than 21 in 3,534 juvenile facilities. Local jails held 4,200 juveniles age 17 or younger at midyear 2014— but “peaked” at 7,700 in 2008. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/jim14_sum.pdf
 OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. Online. Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/corrections/qa08201.asp?qaDate=2014. Released on August 03, 2016.
 OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. Online. Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/corrections/qa08520.asp?qaDate=2004. Released on December 13, 2015.
 King County, community leaders and youth to identify ways to end racial disparity in juvenile justice system, King County Youth Justice, July 29, 2015, available at http://kcyouthjustice.com/2015/07/29/king-county-community-leaders-and-youth-to-identify-ways-to-end-racial-disparity-in-juvenile-justice-system/#more-294
 King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention and Alternatives Report July 2015, http://www.kingcounty.gov/~/media/courts/detention/documents/KC_DAR_Monthly_Breakouts_07_2015.ashx?la=en
 Preliminary Report on Race and Washington’s Criminal Justice System, Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, Seattle University School of Law, http://www.law.seattleu.edu/Documents/korematsu/race%20and%20criminal%20justice/preliminary%20report%20-%20final%20release%20march%201%202011%20for%20printer%202.pdf at 13, 2011.
 Census data, King County, WA, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/53/53033.html, 2014.
 http://file.lacounty.gov/probation/cms1_211096.pdf (study on effectiveness of AWARE program, including the “sports” program at Camp Kilpatrick)