The Dehumanization and Humanization of Prisoners through Food
by Marco Gutierrez
The critically acclaimed film The Shawshank Redemption (1994) centers on the life of Andy Dufresne, a hot-shot banker who is wrongly sentenced to serve two life terms at Shawshank Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. At the beginning of the film, Andy is reserved and pities himself for his misfortune. Yet, after making friends with some of the inmates and finding a way to use his accounting skills to gain influence with the warden, Andy’s confidence skyrockets and eventually he escapes from the prison on a dark and stormy night.
Usually, food serves as comfort and nourishment, yet in Shawshank Prison it serves quite a different purpose. The food supplied by the prison is seemingly meant to be consumed by animals, not humans, and this fact reiterates the abysmal status of the prisoners. Although at first, the food represents the oppression of the prisoners, later on, drink is also used to symbolize a temporary reinstatement of their humanity. Thus, food and drink are incredibly important elements in The Shawshank Redemption because they are used by the director to fully demonstrate the dehumanization or humanity of the prisoners through a medium that anybody can relate to.
When the prison food is first revealed to the viewer, it is through a tracking shot in which Andy gets his food slopped onto his plate (0:20:00). The director uses this shot to illustrate the inhumane conditions of the prison that Andy is not accustomed to yet. Although all the other prisoners are accustomed to the food and are already eating, Andy takes one look at it and finds reason for pause. Upon closer examination, he realizes that there is a mealworm in his food (0:22:00). Sitting next to Andy is an old prisoner named Brooks, who asks for the worm. After Andy gives it to him, Brooks gives the worm to an injured bird that he said he is caring for. This scene is critical because it demonstrates to the audience that the prisoners are being treated like animals. For many people, eating a meal is meant to be a delicious escape from reality, yet in the prison, the food is literally meant for birds. By having the mealworm fed to the injured bird, the director is using the medium of food to draw a comparison between the prisoners and animals.
Although prison life is highly monotonous, there is a moment where Andy and his new friends are able to escape the routine by drinking beers on the roof of the plate factory (0:37:00). In a moment of bravery, Andy convinces the head prison guard to buy beers for each of his compatriots in exchange for fixing up the guard’s taxes. As they are drinking the beers, Red says, “We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men,” he said. “Hell we could’ve been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation,” (0:38:17). The director uses beer to exemplify the feeling of humanity that the prisoners experienced at this moment in a relatable way. Most of the audience will probably know what it feels like to drink a beer on a hot, summer day, yet they don’t often stop to think about it. This scene makes the audience realize that prison life is so restricted that the prisoners don’t even have the privilege of drinking a beer when they want. The way that the director frames the scene, with a long-shot of the prisoners sitting in the morning sun, also helps to get across just how happy and free they feel in that moment. In this brief moment, the prisoners forget that they are trapped. The beer makes them feel human and reminds them of the outside world for a second.
Overall, the director uses food as a relatable element that helps express the humanity and dehumanization of the prisoners at Shawshank. In the scene where Andy finds a mealworm in his food, the director uses the prison food to draw a comparison between the prisoners and animals. By showing that the food the prisoners eat is meant for animals, the director is implying that they are less than human. Later on, the director uses beer to demonstrate the temporary reinstatement of the prisoner’s humanity. The prisoners eat the same thing every day, but for one moment they are able to enjoy a drink that has not been chosen for them. The director lets the beer represent an escape from the dehumanization of prison life, and thus an emblem of freedom. This use of food in both a negative and positive context shows that the director takes advantage of this element to relay the state of the prisoners to the audience in a way that everyone can understand.
The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont. Castle Rock Entertainment. 1994.