...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Locked inside, surrounded by four cold walls, the beams of light from a small window are like breaths of life, even interrupted as they are from the shadows of bars and wires beyond. The view from a prison cell is not something most people think about, especially teenagers who are out to get their piece of the world and have fun along the way, or those who are simply trying to stay alive.
Yet at youth correctional facilities like the one for women featured in Firelight, the many inmates suddenly find themselves with little else but their caged room to think about. After all, they’re there because someone messed up or betrayed them, or because they’re being unfairly punished, or because they were always destined to be a jailbird anyway—basically, they’re just there to put in their time and survive. Or are they?
With the high production values and strong acting that always distinguish Hallmark Hall of Fame films, Firelight uses the true story of a firefighting rehabilitation program at a juvenile correctional facility to give an in-depth look at the realities of crime and incarceration. Rather than focusing on firefighting or the crimes themselves, however, this film is much more of a study of the young women who populate the facility—from all walks of life, they find themselves in a situation where they can blame others and stay imprisoned, or they can choose to find redemption and freedom.
Teenaged Caroline Magabo would do anything for her boyfriend. They love each other, so why not? Growing up in a rough neighborhood has removed any shock at her boyfriend’s idea to pull off a little robbery, but not the disbelief when they’re caught by the police and her supposedly loving boyfriend flips on her. Stunned and confused by his denial that he had ever seen her before, Caroline is still in a fog when she enters the correctional facility that will be her home for some time to come.
Like many of the newcomers, Caroline wants to keep to herself. But she notices the inmates dressed in bright orange uniforms. She soon learns that these women are part of a special program called Crew Nine. Crew Nine members are trained as volunteer firefighters and regularly go outside the walls of the facility to fight fires and save lives. Caroline is curious about this special crew and envious when she learns they get to leave every day.
The news that only inmates with good behavior and other high standards of character are allowed on Crew Nine is enough to put the kibosh on Caroline’s initial moment of interest, as she would much rather keep the chip on her shoulder with matching attitude. Toughness, Caroline and many of the inmates believe, serves one well, especially on the inside. Many of the women clearly believe in survival of the fittest, and some put the principle into practice more than others.
Caroline immediately has encounters with the top women from both sides of the camp. There’s Pedra, the tough leader of the in-house gang population. She smells a new recruit in Caroline and does her best to cultivate the newcomer’s resentful attitude. Then there’s Terry, the leader of Crew Nine who has learned from the facility’s director how to choose a better path and make something good out of her time of incarceration.
The director of the facility, Dwayne Johnson (known as DJ), tackles the new challenge of Caroline the way he does every inmate who comes through his facility’s walls—with a unique mixture of firmness, kindness, and unexpected challenge. Pulling no punches, DJ tells Caroline flat-out that she won’t ever get out of that facility or have a shot at a better life as long as she continues to play the blame game.
She isn’t there because of someone else, DJ points out, and the sooner she admits that, the sooner she’ll have a chance at real freedom. From the get-go, DJ makes sure Caroline understands why she’s at the correctional facility—and it isn’t why she thinks. She’s there, DJ says, to redeem herself—to buy herself back from the wrong choices she made, the evil she did, and the people she hurt.
DJ doesn’t expect Caroline’s turnaround to be instant, and it isn’t. Years of indoctrination into a violent culture, along with years of abuse and being objectified have left deep scars that will take more than a pep talk to heal. And the pull of Pedra’s sales job is strong—she offers Caroline a family, belonging, protection, and personal favors. On DJ’s side is Terry, who offers more of a true friendship to Caroline and tries to reach her with the truths and change that Terry herself is just learning.
In the end, it will take the loving persistence of Terry and DJ, as well as discovering the world of philosophy, reading, and learning to open the doors of Caroline’s inner prison—the doors to a better character and making the world a better place through the choices she makes.
If there’s a hallmark to Hallmark Hall of Fame productions, it’s the emphasis on strong acting and story that carries their films to heights far beyond those of other TV-movie fare. These films seem to belong more on the big screen than the small, and Firelight is another such hit. Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., leads the acting pack with his portrayal of DJ. Solid as always, Gooding never hits a false note (and keep an eye out for his unexpectedly hilarious portrayal of an average Joe giving an interview).
As Caroline, Q’orianka Kilcher doesn’t show much variation from her other film roles, but she doesn’t have to, as she’s fully equipped to play the brooding-to-cheerful transition of her character. The acting standout is DeWanda Wise, who steals the picture with her emotionally powerful, authentic, and captivating portrayal of Terry. The filmmakers almost seem to become entranced by Wise themselves, as the story shifts to her at one point, going away from Caroline to let us into Terry’s world and story.
The lack of consistent point of view and focus on one character is perhaps the only flaw in an otherwise well-written and moving script. Fortunately, the tangents away from Caroline, who seems to be the intended primary character, are forgivable because of the interest and depth of these other characters. There’s some benefit to seeing more of DJ and understanding his genuine concern for the young women he works with, and the film certainly is more compelling because viewers are given the chance to be immersed in Terry’s story and character. Caroline’s tale, however, does undoubtedly suffer in impact and cohesiveness because of the time and attention spent away from her.
Even so, the impression Firelight makes is strong and the many lessons taught are meaningful and lasting. In a world in which passing the buck is as natural to many as breathing, the idea that taking responsibility for one’s own actions can actually help one deal with guilt is blissfully counter-cultural. In addition, the power of compassion, love, and friendship is demonstrated in palpable ways. Terry and DJ’s relentless pursuit of Caroline, even when she throws their kindness back in their faces, is remarkable and gives viewers an amazing example to aspire to.
Other admirable character traits like heroism, responsibility, sacrifice, and forgiveness are also explored through the stories of the other inmates, as well as those of the main characters. True to most (though not all) Hallmark films, Firelight also tells even this grittier tale without unnecessary offensive content. While there is no foul language used and no graphic violence, mature themes are still handled and eluded to, which make the film most appropriate for teens and adults.
The biggest shortcoming of this film is that even while it exemplifies so many Christian behaviors and ideas, it doesn’t recognize the true source for those ideals or purpose for following them. Perhaps the lack of spirituality in the movie is something to be thankful for, as the theme would otherwise be one of works-righteousness, encouraging people to think that they can spiritually redeem themselves. As the film stands, the redemption spoken of is indeed works-based, but DJ isn’t referencing a spiritual redemption when he uses that term. Only redemption of a person from doing wrong and hurting others to doing right and helping others is in view.
Keeping in mind that good behavior and morals have lasting value only after a spiritual redemption through Christ, Christian viewers can celebrate Firelight’s uplifting story and inspiring messages that shine like a beacon on the predominantly dark screen of contemporary media.