Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Work’: Electrifying Documentary About Deploying Men’s Work Healing in a Maximum Security Prison

March 28, 2021 Updated: March 28, 2021

Not Rated | | Documentary | 8 September 2017 (UK)

Of all the film critics on Rotten Tomatoes writing about the documentary “The Work,” I’m the only one who has actually done the type of work (and facilitated the work) on display in this riveting documentary about man-healing, set in a maximum security prison. And done it alongside three of the actual facilitators in the film.

Does that matter? Not really. But I’ve read the other reviews, and nobody really knows what they’re talking about, or seeing. They couldn’t possibly—not if they’re calling the work, “group therapy,” which is as true as it is meaningless; it belittles; it doesn’t begin to convey the scope of this type of healing work. And also not if they’re referring to “cons” with surprise that these prison inmates are real, valid human beings, capable of deep change.

Epoch Times Photo
Free men head into Folsom Prison to join forces with convicts to change their lives and gain initiation into the mature masculine. (SXSW Film Festival)

Now, I haven’t facilitated men’s work in the powder keg setting of a maximum security prison as it’s demonstrated here, but I’m here to tell you: Every men’s weekend that’s taken place, weekly, around the globe since the early 1980s is a powder keg of, if not equal, then similarly dangerous explosive potential.

Emotionally illiterate men everywhere, fatherless men everywhere, uninitiated men, mission-less men, and all combinations and permutations of those toxic ingredients are just inherently dangerous.

And on the flipside—all these components likewise render men ineffectual, drifting, worthless wretches. Modern society has long since lost its connection to, and understanding of—the sacred, mature-masculine.

Speaking of dangerous men, I personally heard an active-duty U.S. Navy SEAL say of the work: “This work is as tightly organized, challenging, and rewarding as any SEAL-training evolution I ever participated in. I’m a SEAL; I can swim 60 feet down in the pitch-black ocean with great white sharks. Doesn’t faze me. But this men’s warrior weekend? This scared the [expletive omitted] out of me.” It’s not called “New Warrior” for nothing.

I’ve witnessed an Air Force spec-ops combat controller exorcising demons he carried from having ordered bomb strikes that wiped out villages. I’ve seen the work of a professional boxer who killed a man in the ring. Men’s work is devastatingly powerful wherever it takes place.

But to publicly present, finally, “The Work,” about the healing work that happens on men’s weekends, there really is no better stage than legendary lockdown, Folsom State Prison. Johnny Cash put the darkness of Folsom in our national consciousness in 1955, and the documentary “The Work” is here over 60 years later to announce, from Folsom, the unbelievable light, heat, and power of Men’s Work to the world.

A Little Background

Back in the early 1980s, three men—an ex-Marine, a psychologist, and a teacher—got together and decided to address men’s issues in the wake of ’60s and ’70s emerging feminism.

How were men supposed to be, during these confusing times, where, as Chinese medicine describes it—the cosmic Yin is in ascension, and Yang in decline? Role-reversals were happening, it was all very confusing for men. And women.

Then the poet Robert Bly wrote the definitive men’s work bible, “Iron John,” and these three men—Rich Tosi, Bill Kauth, and Ron Hering—came up with the Wildman Weekend.

It immediately got ridiculed; the press had a field day with it, I mean, what is that? Men running around in the woods, howling at the moon, naked? Smearing mud on themselves, banging on drums, dealing with mommy and daddy issues and crying? Looks like a bunch of white men trying to be Indians. And so on.

The test-runs of the Wildman Weekends have long since evolved into the formidable, tip of the mytho-poetic men’s movement spear—the nonprofit Mankind Project’s “New Warrior Training Adventure.” These events took place every weekend, all across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany, prior to COVID. But new, upcoming weekends are being prepped as we speak.

You may have noticed that the concept of the warrior has become very popular in the last couple of decades. The overwhelming use of the word “warrior” in today’s culture arrived via the mytho-poetic men’s movement. At least 100,000 men worldwide have done their weekends.

But because this is work exclusive to the needs of men, it was, up until the making of “The Work,” not for public consumption; not to be lightly blathered about—it was a mistake to let predatory journalists on the early weekends.

Losing the element of surprise drains much of the power out of the weekend. There needed to be a time of circling the wagons; for men to realize and remember that down through the ages, only men can teach other men (and boys) how to be men. If you don’t have the requisite plumbing, you’re in no way, shape, or form, qualified to do this job. So has it ever been in tribal life, so shall it ever be, in order for healthy men (and by extension healthy communities) to thrive.

Men’s Work in Prison

That said, the work presented in “The Work” is being made public on the request of the prison inmates involved. When the prison warden at Folsom was shown the film, his jaw hit the ground. He immediately laid out the red carpet for further men’s work.

Why? He’d taken a huge gamble. He’d allowed the unprecedented, extremely dangerous situation to occur: a pack of convicted killers from different lethal gangs; Crips, Bloods, Skins (Native-American), White supremacists, Latin Kings, Mexican cartel-affiliated gangs, and so on, to be together in one room—unsupervised. No guards. And allowed them to participate in processes where the volume of their inherently explosive emotional states would be turned up to 11.

And there are explosions. Man-oh-man. It’s an actual adrenaline high. As Rick, a white-supremacist shot-caller (gang leader) and former outlaw-biker in “The Work” says, “I had a ’43 Shovelhead (Harley-Davidson). I’d take her up to 147 mph, till she started shaking. I lived for experiences on the edge. I don’t get to have those experiences in prison. But these men’s circles carry that same energy.”

prison inmate in "The Work"
Rick, white-supremacist gang leader and former biker, in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

These men’s circles also carry the power to contain the inevitable explosions and exorcisms like a human bomb containment chamber. Let the healing begin.

Alright Already! What Goes On in There?

Tough guys. To quote legendary fullback Jim Brown, “The first thing you find out when you get to the NFL is that tough guys come in all sizes. What the little guys lack in size and power, they more than make up for in accuracy and meanness.”

“The Work’s” camera pans over a scary prison line-up; level-four convicts with wall-to-wall tats and bandanas. Seriously bad dudes, swole from back-to-back life-sentences worth of pumping iron. Bonafide thug-life. Up close and personal.

gathering of prison inmates in "The Work"
Chris, third in from right, a regular guy surrounded by Folsom prison inmates from a variety of gangs who help him release past demons and lead him into true manhood, in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

These convicts are part of the Inside Circle Foundation, known on the prison yard as the Dragon Clan, a guarded brotherhood existing beneath the radar of the 360-degree predator watchfulness that is the de rigueur state of being in prison.

These men want to do men’s work. They want to change. They’re weary to the bone, of being bad to the bone. Tired of the blood. They want to become good men. But everything in a maximum security prison is … written in blood.

Which is why Director McLeary and co-director Gethin Aldous, after coming in contact with the Inside Circle Foundation in 2004, needed to work with them for a nearly a decade before making this documentary. Trust had to be seriously earned, as you can well imagine.

I’d been invited to staff an Inside Circle Foundation weekend, but never got around to it. What I didn’t realize at the time is that this is not just the inmates doing the work. There’s a small crew of regular, everyday men who go do their men’s weekend in the prison, as an alternative to doing a regular New Warrior Training Adventure.

And so the initiated convicts become the teachers, guides, and mentors of the regular men; the intense hardship of their lives rendering them fast-tracked elders to the soft men from the outside. But it’s by no means a one-sided exchange.

We’re led through the razor-wired gates, past prison personnel, down to the belly of the beast; a big room, where convicts and regular guys are circled up together, and taken through an African call-and-response ritual chant to invoke unity. Ritual space is established, and it is into the ritual space of the sacred masculine, that the camera allows us access.

circle of men in "The Work"
Mankind Project weekend leader and elder James McLeary leading Folsom Prison inmates and free men in a unifying African call-and-response ritual in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

The Actual Work of ‘The Work’

What’s the main thing modern men are missing? The boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage. In tribes where becoming a man incorporated a do-or-die ordeal, such as the Masai tribe’s stipulation that a 130-pound 16-year-old boy kill an 800-pound adult male African lion, with a thin spear (the lion population needed occasional thinning or the cattle-culture Masai would soon have no more cattle)—the male elders, uncles, and tribal warriors had to literally rip the boy out of his mother’s arms and hustle him off to the desert or wilderness, to teach him to become a man.

Although the tribal women knew this was necessary and played along, shrieking, wailing, gnashing teeth (and secretly rolling their eyes), they were also truly distraught. Because they knew, one way or another, they’d never, ever see their sweet little boys again. Their sons would either return as powerful men with faces set in stone—or not return at all.

Iron John and the Inner Wild Man

As mentioned, Robert Bly’s book about the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Iron John,” is the basis of the mytho-poetic men’s movement. Iron John is a giant Wild Man, covered in red hair, who lives at the bottom of a pond that the king’s son plays near. One day, the prince’s golden ball falls in the pond.

The king’s men drain the pond, discover big hairy Iron John, and lock him in a cage. Problem is, he’s got the prince’s golden ball. The ball stands for boyhood’s perfect completeness, and also—a man’s potential.

How does a grown man get his gold back? He has to access his inner wildness—his warrior. To do that, he must stop being mommy’s good little boy, that she taught him to be. He must steal the key to the Wild Man’s cage from where it’s hidden—under her pillow. Left to their own devices with no male community in support, women will subconsciously keep their little boys, as boys, for as long as possible.

Robert Bly recalls explaining this dynamic to a room full of women, and a singular, “soft” male. The man spoke up immediately and objected that stealing the key was wrong, and not very nice. Bly said words to effect of, “I felt the entire, collective spirit of the women in the room rise up as one, to kill this man.” Women know things.

Rite of Passage

The work of men’s weekends provides modern men with their long-lost manhood rite of passage. By definition that means facing an ordeal they don’t think they’ll be able to survive. This is a primal call for men, like salmon migrating upstream.

The ordeal of childbirth is a built-in gateway ritual to the maturation of the female tribe. Men need an outer ritual guided by tribal warriors and elders. If there’s no cultural structure for this, what do we end up with? Gangs. And a world of disenfranchised men.

And there you have your answer about why some outwardly schlubby, inwardly soft, average joes got involved in this scary, prison-situated opportunity—to grow into men. What’s the call and desire and impetus for the hard men already inside the prison? To become good men.

The Cliff Notes version describing the New Warrior Training Adventure might read: One hundred men, from all walks of life—doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers, ex-cons, bikers, former and active-duty military, construction workers, Hasidic rabbis—all races and religions—meet as strangers on a Friday evening, and by Sunday afternoon they’re all brothers. And not in a shallow “bromance” way, but in an archetypal, male, tribal, communal sense that hasn’t been experienced by men since the times when they were hunters, warriors, heroes, and elders in tribal life.

Two men with bandanas and tank-tops in "The Work"
Rick, white-supremacist gang leader (R) and a fellow gang member in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

The physical challenges scare the book-smart rabbis; they need to grow their physical warrior. The emotional-literacy component scares the hyper-stoic spec-ops soldiers and sailors; they need to work on their openness, learn to drop their guard around other men, and grow their inner king and lover.

Everyone is challenged to face their fears, and everyone has fears. Men are reclaiming their inner warrior, balancing their quadrants (the four archetypal quadrants of the mature masculine psyche: warrior, king, lover, and magician), upgrading, and learning about the sacred masculine. The wives, girlfriends, and children who attend the graduations are across-the-board ecstatic about the results. There’s no “toxic masculinity” anywhere to be seen.

That’s the work. That’s men’s work in a nutshell. All modern men have work to do. Any men’s circle contains men who yearn for the sacred masculine, in order to become good men, and for some who hear the further call to Joseph Campbell’s proverbial “Hero’s Journey”—the dedication to a discipline of spiritual enlightenment.

There are four days worth of tried-and-true processes. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you burn for? Anything? Some men are numb.

Like Chris, a soft-spoken museum worker, afflicted with a bad case of Millennial whateverness. He sees the massive exorcisms going on left and right, around him, and confides on the bus to Folsom on day two: “I feel like they’re trying to break me; get me to cry. I didn’t come here looking to cry, and I don’t want to feel like I’m letting them down if I don’t.” Who can’t relate to that? Right? I chuckled and thought, “Wait till he gets to ‘Little Boy’s Deepest Needs.’”

two men hug in "The Work"
Men doing “guts” work in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

On this weekend, there’s something that will address every last issue men hide, repress, and deny, in their lives, and sure enough, Chris gets the roof torn off the inner fort where he’s repressed the pain of a father who subtly but powerfully made him feel stupid and incapable. He didn’t know how much pain he was carrying. Men rarely do.

This is called “guts” work, and this could be, in many ways, designated as the essence, or the flagship process of men’s work. Role-play so powerful, with the theatrical fourth wall so firmly in place that the players (in this case work-ers) are so utterly transported as to be channeling.

On any men’s weekend, and especially in a maximum security prison—safety is paramount; an aspect inherited from the military. This is psychodrama at its most intense, with the word “psycho” being a clear and ever-present danger.

Fortunately, the safety on men’s weekends is as powerful as any 280-pound NFL fullback-stopping defensive scrum, and can contain the raw rage, deep shame, and staggering grief that flows from opened wounds. Hence the bomb containment metaphor. The resulting healing is incandescent. It’s electrifying. And it fosters concentration so deep that the documentary camera might as well be filming A-list professional actors. Method acting is not acting, but being, and that’s what goes on here.

The Work-ers

“The Work” focuses on three convicts and three civilians. Over the four days, every man takes a trip down the rabbit hole of his past, and removes the makeshift psychic bandages from the original wounds dealt by life. Wounds that have caused these men to metaphorically limp through life.

When the incarcerated men model the process, the free men see that the “safe container” of the room is indeed industrial strength, a veritable bomb containment chamber able to contain the rawest rage and the deepest sadness, it encourages them to explode out of their comfort zones and join in the healing.

a group of men hold a man aloft in "The Work"
A Folsom Prison inmate experiences for the first time what it’s like to be supported by a community of men, his newfound brothers, which include rival gang members and free men. (SXSW Film Festival)

Besides Chris, there’s Charles, a middle aged black man, maimed by fatherlessness. There’s Rick, the Aryan Brotherhood gang member, who’s tired of all the blood, and gentle Dark Cloud, the Skins gang member who’s in for 22 years on account of nearly cutting a man in half with a machete. A West Coast Crips shot-caller is doing 75 years.

Brian is a teacher’s assistant of what looks to be middle-eastern heritage. He’s got a Banty rooster-like need to act tough, which takes the form of knee-jerk judging of others, like he’s doing them a favor, imparting his harsh truth from on high. In a moment of humor, when Brian goes for a drink of water, the two veteran inmates he’s told his story to, look at each other knowingly and smile, “Looks like we’ve got a live one.”

two men in "The Work"
Brian, a regular guy with way too much attitude for his own safety, considering he’s surrounded by former killers. The prison inmates who help him accept himself and enter into true manhood, in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

In Conclusion

“The Work” will challenge your view of who America’s prisoners really are. You will appreciate as never before the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Perhaps the most powerful image is of two inmates, a Blood gang leader calling out another former Blood gang member, who, from deep in his despair, has just let a thinly-veiled hint hang in the air, that he will soon commit suicide. In a warrior showdown that’ll give you goosebumps, the shot-caller says he won’t stand for any quitting of life on his watch, and implores his brother to hang on for 90 days.

Two men in "The Work"
A South Central LA Crips gang leader (R), challenging a fellow inmate who’s lost the will to live, and who initiates him to the true brotherhood of men, in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

When the hopeless man acquiesces, their ensuing bear-hug gives way to what sounds like post-production sound engineering: you hear highly accelerated heart-beats that slow down with the new peace of comforting words. You think “Ah, that’s a nice touch,” and then realize the hug unintentionally slammed their microphones into their chests, which picked up their actual heartbeats. It’s magical film-making.

Since the film was made approximately 10 years prior to it’s release in 2017, the most notorious of all gangs, MS-13 (that’s been in the news since then-president Trump spotlighted their dedication to rape as one of the many reasons America needs a Southern border wall) is missing here. As the saying goes in men’s work, “All men need this work.”

Jeffrey Epstein needed the work. Bill Cosby needs the work. Harvey Weinstein, O.J. Simpson, and Andrew Cuomo all need the work. Rapist-MS-13 gang needs the work. 

a gathering of men in "The Work"
A circle of initiated men: Folsom prison inmates and their new, free world brothers, in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

Due to the transformative power of the work, inmates previously carrying double life sentences and the like, are being released back into society. With no recidivism whatsoever. I repeat: 100 percent no recidivism.

“The Work” is a monumental achievement. It will rivet your attention for every one of its 87 minutes.

Read my article about movies containing stories of assassins who end up doing versions of the work.

 a circle of men in "The Work"
A circle of men who’ve done their work and “touched their shadow”: Folsom prison inmates and their new, free world brothers, in “The Work.” (SXSW Film Festival)

‘The Work’
Director: Jairus McLeary; Co-director: Gethin Aldous
Running Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Rating: Not rated
Release Date: Oct. 29, 2017
Rated 5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch