Review: A look inside jailhouse rap with ‘Speech’ of Arrested Development

Anthony Johnston and Todd "Speech" Thomas recording at the Richmond (Va.) City Jail in the documentary '16 Bars'
Anthony Johnston, left, and Todd “Speech” Thomas in the documentary “16 Bars.”
(Resonant Pictures)

The sobering, candid, sadly profound documentary “16 Bars” may center on a 2017 music workshop for prisoners in a Richmond, Va., jail but emerges as an unsettling snapshot of recidivism and the flaws in America’s criminal justice system.

Yet the film, directed by Sam Bathrick, plays less as an indictment of those topics and more as a modestly hopeful look at the potential power of song and creativity to focus, empower and inspire.

Unfortunately, the generous efforts of Todd “Speech” Thomas, cofounder of the Grammy-winning hip-hop group Arrested Development, who worked with inmates to record an album of their original material, are met with mixed outcomes for profiled participants Teddy, Garland, Devonte and Anthony.

That there is only so much Thomas’ valuable program can do to quell the various demons and compulsions of these would-be musical talents proves how intensely fraught and complicated their situations — like those of so many offenders — truly are.


The movie vividly shows how the often recurring cycle of such life traps as poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, anger, psychological trauma and the “generational curse” of criminal behavior, can require far more longterm rehabilitative care than our system is built to handle.

Although “16 Bars” doesn’t always effectively balance its powerful music element with its stirring personal profiles, the film remains a vital and involving portrait.

'16 Bars'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 15, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica