The PBS series “P.O.V.” continues its winning streak tonight with “Omar & Pete,” an hour-and-a-half documentary about the struggle to forsake a life of crime and addiction and be reintegrated to society.
Set in Maryland, award-winning filmmaker Tod Lending first introduces Omar Mason, who’s finishing a 15-year sentence for bank robbery. He’s been in and out of prison for 30 years—his longest stretch on the outside being six months.
Omar became a Muslim during his years of incarceration, but something else is a significant part of his life: substance abuse. In that, he’s not alone; case managers for the Maryland Department of Corrections say roughly 90 percent of their guys have a drug problem.
“Before, every time I left prison, I had already made plans to come back,” says Omar as he prepares to be released back into society. “What’s different this time, I have been preparing myself not to be a recidivist.”
When Omar gets out and moves into a transition house, he reunites with Pete Duncan, his friend for several decades.
“Pete Duncan is a friend of mine that I have known for over 20 years,” says Omar. “Pete and I spent a lot of years behind bars. It seems like the 30 years I was there, he was there.”
Pete, however, is the home’s resident manager, and he’s ready to see Omar succeed outside prison.
“Now we share the same religion, the same room, the same common cause,” says Pete.
Lending talks with Omar and Pete, case managers, parole officers and family members. He follows Omar as he sets about making a life for himself in Baltimore, getting reacquainted with his large family, finding work at a clothing store and car wash, and even starting his own business.
Though Omar is upbeat about his prospects, life intrudes. Each night, he spends an hour or two with Pete talking about his day, decompressing, relying on his “support system” that he often invokes as the reason why he won’t relapse.
He does relapse, but that’s not the end of Omar’s story by any means. His relapse involves detox programs and treatment centers, more meetings with case managers, and pep talks from friends and family.
“I’m continuing to try to treat this disease until I get it right,” he tells his parole officer, who steadily loses patience with Omar and begins to suspect he is playing his case managers and “support system” personnel off of each other.
Is Omar serious, or is he yanking chains at the MDOC?
“Omar & Pete” offers no easy answer to that question. Each of the title characters is too complex and their circumstances too multifaceted to suggest pat answers—especially when addictions are involved.
Lending magnificently captures the mundane but monumental struggle men like Omar face. Omar shifts within his penal, societal and familial systems, hoping—we think—to find his place after decades adrift.
“Omar & Pete” gives a sobering account of the individual within American’s so-called prison industrial complex. Its subjects may be hidden from many citizens, but their problems are deservedly in your face.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Click here for local listings of “Omar & Pete.”
MPAA Rating: Unrated.
Producer-Director: Tod Lending
Cast: Leon Omar Mason; William “Pete” Duncan.
The movie’s P.O.V. Web site is here.