In the early ’90s, Akron photographer John Lucas was working on a series of photos of young black men posing in front of an American flag, each having written an essay about the flag. One of the young men he wanted to include was Akron teen Richard “Poochie” Roderick — but Roderick told Lucas he did not have the time.
“About a week later, he had decades of time,” Lucas said.
Roderick was in a group of seven men in their late teens and twenties who were convicted of robbing local restaurants and putting the staff in walk-in freezers or coolers; they became known as “the cooler bandits,” a phrase that is also the title of a documentary Lucas has made about four of them.
The film will be shown during the Cleveland International Film Festival, including at 4:45 p.m. Thursday in the main Akron-Summit County Public Library as part of the “Day and Knight in Akron.” A panel discussion will follow. Showings in Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland will be at 2 p.m. today and 11:20 a.m. Friday.
The cooler bandits case was famous not only because of the boldness of the crimes and the catchy nickname, but because of what happened after the bandits were caught. In 1991, one robber, Donovan Harris, plea-bargained a relatively light sentence of 16 to 50 years — getting out after about a decade. Although no one was harmed in the robberies, Roderick and Charlie Kelly were sentenced to up to 150 years and served about 20.
Another participant, Frankie Porter, faced more than 500 years in prison (and is still incarcerated). He had twice tried to escape before sentencing, threatened witnesses in court and, according to an account at the time, told the judge “to do an unnatural act.” He was then sent to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, “arguably the most violent prison in America at the time,” Lucas said; it was the site of a notorious riot in 1993. A decade later, Porter was caught plotting bank robberies from inside prison, adding to his sentence.
Lucas, who now lives in Claremont, Calif., and works primarily as a photographer, was long interested in the case. Not only were these familiar faces to him, but the issues in the case resonated. The Beacon Journal’s Dorothy Shinn said a 1992 exhibit of the flag photos revealed Lucas as “a walking encyclopedia of the ways in which poverty, injustice, misperception and violence rob children of the inner city of their childhood.” Indeed, Lucas has wondered if his life could have taken a similar turn had he not had help along the way.
There are big issues in The Cooler Bandits, though perhaps not in the way you would expect — and Lucas is well aware of audience expectations, that “here are the guys that a lot of Americans fear.” So he grows uneasy talking about the specifics of the film, wanting instead for audiences to discover it for themselves, to see the men in it and how their lives turned out from childhood through the robberies and far beyond.
Lucas tells those stories through footage of the men talking, separately and in different combinations, as well as interviews with their families and even a couple of the robbery victims. There is also news footage from the old WAKC (Channel 23) coverage of the case.
Make no mistake: The Cooler Bandits has a point. It is hand-in-hand with a petition drive via Change.org to get Porter clemency after more than 20 years in prison; Harry Belafonte recently joined the cause with a supportive post on Facebook. But Lucas did not want The Cooler Bandits to be a polemic about the prison or justice systems, or about how people turn into cooler bandits.
“People along the way would say you need to talk about the devastating economic downturn in Akron, and the tire industry and all this,” Lucas said in a telephone interview. “And I thought it was making excuses. I know these guys, and there wasn’t one time that they made an excuse for what they did. Why should I make a movie that makes excuses? …
“I think the other stuff comes through, but it’s not really the main interest for me,” he said. “The problem in America is that we have this huge capacity and compassion for folks who are innocent, especially people who come out of jail 20 years later and they’ve found are innocent. Our jails and prisons are not filled with those kinds of people. The question is, do we believe in that capacity for people to change?
“I grew up thinking, you paid your time after you did your crime. But it’s really not like that anymore with all the Draconian laws put in place [for convicts]. I thought it was important to do a film where guys are guilty, they’ve made their mistakes and they’ve understood what they’ve done. They just want a chance to move on with their lives.”
Lucas began working on the film in 2007, cobbling together funding along the way. A Kickstarter campaign raised $15,000 in 2010. A MacArthur Foundation grant in 2012 generated about $125,000. Asked why he kept at it, Lucas said, “Just the guys. And there were things coming up — the possibility of parole … and the opportunity, as friends and a filmmaker, to witness two guys get their freedom after 20 years. … You just find ways — you beg, borrow, whatever you need to get the money to do it.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.