March 27, 2014 | posted in Filmmakers
When four teenagers in Akron, Ohio, better known to locals as “The Cooler Bandits”, robbed a string of restaurants in 1991, no one argued that no matter what cards were already stacked against them, they were in the wrong. However, when they received prison sentences that ranged up to 500 years, even the restaurant owners found these enormous numbers unsettling. With no injuries incurred in any of the crimes, many wonder if the offense fairly matched the penalty.
John Lucas, a Northeast Ohio native, spent time working with the Big Brother/Big Sister program, and had the chance to meet several kids in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. After moving to Los Angeles, Lucas stayed in touch with the people he worked with in Ohio to attempt to understand the unfortunate circumstances driving the community into poverty and incarceration. He began following the story of “The Cooler Bandits” from their trial, sentencing, imprisonment, and reintegration for the men trying to start life after jail.
While this is Lucas’ first feature film, his over 20 years of experience as a documentary photographer has developed his eye for “filling the frame.”
“Cropping has always been a dirty word to me,” says Lucas. “I take pride in an image that is full-frame, in the fact that what I was seeing and feeling as I looked through the camera is what the viewer sees.”
As for the significant attention to detail, Lucas says, “It’s often the moments without dialogue that hold the most weight for me; facial expressions, slight gestures that pull the viewer closer to the subject. In this film, that’s important to me because it’s the complex humanities of the guys that I’m most interested in and it’s the complex humanities that historically, have been ignored or denied to them.”
Ultimately, though, Lucas’ true inspiration was the men themselves.
“I watched them grow up in prison,” he says. “I watched them confront realities that most of us only consider theoretically. And, I admired how they did all this with strength, dignity and perseverance.”
Since these events occurred so close to home, it seems only natural for its debut to be right here in Northeast Ohio. “I can’t think of a better place to premiere the film!” Lucas exclaims. “The guys will be there, their families and friends. Well, all except Frankie Porter. He’s the only “cooler bandit” still incarcerated. Staring at this crazy, really unfathomable 200-500 year sentence.”
“The Cooler Bandits” is already inspiring positive change in the community. “Two original victims of the robberies, the only two I was successful tracking down, recently signed a petition we started, in which we will ask the governor to commute Frankie’s sentence,” Lucas says. This is a true testament that those directly affected by the crime of these men years ago are the very ones speaking out against their lengthy punishment.
— Amy Kersey
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