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‘God Save Texas’ Review: Richard Linklater Leads Poignant, Personal HBO Doc on the Mess in Texas

In 2003, in his hometown of Huntsville, TX, Richard Linklater walked to the state prison, where an inmate on death row was scheduled to be executed. Linklater, at the time, was 43 years old. “School of Rock” was about to be released. His emergence on the international film stage was nearly a decade in the rearview. Still, his most recent project had just fallen apart. He wanted to make a movie about two high school football stars: one who ended up in prison, and the other who worked there. That story and present circumstances sent him on a short walk to the prison that day. “What I saw as an unfolding tragedy created a kind of panic in me,” Linklater says, narrating the footage 20 years later. “This was all happening just down the hill from where I went to high school.”

Linklater has always been one of the more amiable auteurs out there. He comes across as just one of the guys — the old baseball teammate and high school classmate he was growing up; a seasoned version of the raw young men we see in “Everybody Wants Some” or “Dazed and Confused,” who’s still more comfortable in a T-shirt at a Fourth of July cookout than donning a tux to walk the red carpet. That’s who’s shown standing outside the prison in 2003. Just another face in the crowd, just one more concerned soul who can’t help but confront the moral crisis taking place in his own backyard.

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Perhaps that’s what makes the center of his documentary, “Hometown Prison” — the first episode of HBO’s three-part series “God Save Texas” — so powerful. Despite being aware enough to walk to the correctional facility that day, despite being engaged enough to bring his camera and record what happened outside those towering walls, Linklater admits he didn’t often think of the prison when he was living in Huntsville; he didn’t dwell on the people locked inside those walls, or the people whose job it was to make sure they stayed there. Linklater’s 87-minute doc wrestles with just how common it’s become not to acknowledge the government-sanctioned pain and suffering going on all around us. Whether it’s a necessary coping mechanism, an encouraged societal mentality, or a combination of both, normalizing tragedy has become a pervasive part of American culture, whether it’s at home or abroad, and Linklater’s tender, personal inquisition of how that can happen is moving and memorable.

Adapted from Lawrence Wright’s 2018 novel, “God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” all three parts of the upcoming HBO documentary (which made its premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival) are directed by current or former Texans, and each one centers around a different issue. Linklater’s opening hour tackles the rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex, as well as how the state clings to capital punishment (despite waning public support and ample erroneous killings). Episode 2, “The Price of Oil,” follows director Alex Stapleton as she lays out how the state’s oil and gas industry has excluded Black citizens and invaded Black communities in Texas. The last part, “La Frontera,” heads to the sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, where Iliana Sosa chronicles how the community there fights for cohesiveness against the oppressive American and Mexican border policies.

With such dense topics driving each hour (Episodes 2 and 3 clock in under 60 minutes), each doc has sections that feel short-changed. “I think the more we talk about Texas, the more complicated it seems,” Wright says, during one of his on-camera discussions. (He appears in each episode, serving as a through-line for the series and sounding board for the filmmakers.) So instead of striving for a comprehensive portrait, their personal points-of-view fuel audiences’ continued interest in the issues raised.

Stapleton visits her mother, flipping through photo albums and tracing her family history over 150 years. Later, when we see construction crews tearing down her aunt’s house — because the insurance companies refuse to make repairs, when rebuilding a smaller house is the cheaper option — it hurts. This was a place where her family gathered, where relationships were fortified and history was forged. Now, it won’t be big enough to accommodate those get-togethers, and Stapleton’s astute structuring allows the moment to land without any blunt exposition. We simply watch, alongside her aunt, as her home is ripped away.

An elderly woman watches her old home get demolished in the second episode of the HBO documentary, "God Save Texas," titled "The Price of Oil"
“God Save Texas: The Price of Oil”Courtesy of Sundance Institute

While Stapleton’s entry can skew a little too dry, Sosa’s closing episode brims with life. She compares coming home to El Paso, which sits right on America’s border with Mexico, to a perilous balancing act — like walking along the top of the fence dividing two countries. But she also makes clear that the two cities want to become one. They’re distinct, but the locals reject the idea of separation. One subject is a reporter who covers immigration, and she’s dating a Mexican citizen who lives in El Paso. Another is an advocate for relaxed regulations, so separated parents and children, as well as partners and more family members, can see each other with the regularity their relationships demand.

“The whole point [of the border wall] is to cut a barbed wire fence right down the middle of your brain — to say, ‘Those people over there and us over here.’ And that division, that internal division, it’s horrible.”

Reframing the issue, be it from the director’s personal perspective or the ideas voiced by various talking heads, is the greatest strength of “God Save Texas.” No one does it better than Linklater. He speaks with local high school students about what it’s like to live in a town that’s now home to seven prisons. Some say they “never give too much thought to it.” Some say the prisons don’t feel that close because the town has “such a good vibe.” Some plainly state that they have to ignore it, as they grow visibly uncomfortable when Linklater asks them directly about the prison’s proximity. But Linklater himself doesn’t make them uncomfortable. As an interviewer, he stays open and understanding. He’s relaxed and agreeable. Whether he’s talking to today’s students or his old friends (whose perspectives are similar to the kids living there today), he’s a great listener, and he applies that skill to how he builds his documentary.

Just after seeing Linklater and his buddies reminisce about growing up in Huntsville, his voiceover reflects on his stepfather, who worked as a prison guard, while a scene from “Boyhood” plays out in parallel: “I remember my stepfather going from being this really fun guy that my mom was dating to this guy who was just sitting in a chair across the room, staring at the floor.” He then speaks to a current correctional officer, who admits that “even though we can leave, it still feels like I’m locked up,” as well as a former guard, who describes having a breakdown after too many years talking to men on death row.

His position shifted from pro-death penalty to vehemently against, and Linklater provides stats that show the state is leaning that way, as well. Still, he’s uncomfortable knowing that executions are still taking place in his former home, in his native state, and in various places across his country. “It just feels like there’s some sort of frontier justice in the Texas spirit,” he says, before cutting to a clip of then-governor George W. Bush arguing in favor of 14-year-olds being charged as adults. When Linklater returns to the prison in recent years, on the day of another scheduled execution, he spots a protester from his original trip in 2003. “I’d say I’ve been to 90 percent of the executions that have taken place,” he says. “While I’m here, I spend a lot of time imagining the conversations that take place between the parents and the children in the cars that drive by. That’s the ultimate measure of the justice of what we do: Can we rightly explain it to our children?”

Those aren’t simple conversations to have, and it’s always easier to shy away from them than to confront the state-mandated violence taking place around the world, across our states, and in our backyards. But even if you don’t know what to do about it, as Linklater admitted when he first walked down to the prison 20 years ago, living in ignorance isn’t the answer. Having Linklater’s laid-back demeanor guiding us through “Hometown Prison” makes the heavy subject matter that much more bearable, just as the documentary itself serves as a deeply human rebuttal to silence and call for recognition at once.

Grade: B+

“God Save Texas” premiered Tuesday, January 23 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. HBO will release the three-part documentary series later this year.

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