Painted with My Hair – Arena – 31 October 2021 – BBC Four

Painted with My Hair is inspired by the paintings, poetry and letters of Donny Johnson, an exceptionally intelligent and talented US lifer, who has been locked away inside his country’s notoriously punitive prison system since the age of 18. At 58, Donny was released from solitary and had his first parole board hearing in April 2018. But for 24 years of his prison life, he was ‘buried alive’ in an 11-foot by seven-foot concrete cell inside the Super Max Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison, where creativity and the making of art was crucial to Donny’s survival.

As he wrote in a letter in 2008:

‘…I’m entombed in the bowels of the worst prison in the state of California. From the depths of my soul in the shades of hell, I manifested art. The only place that I have any semblance of control over my environment is through creativity. I’ve been in prison for 30 years and it’s a history whose nightmare I’m trying to awake from. When you’re buried alive, you dig for your life. Digging where you delve in solitary confinement, into the unconscious, I found a pool of mythic images and painted them with my own DNA, i.e. a brush fashioned out of my own hair…’

Together with thousands of other long-time solitary confined prisoners, Donny was denied all physical contact with other human beings and subjected to appalling levels of sensory and social deprivation. He was permitted to speak to visitors (including his mother) only via a phone through bullet-proof glass. Nevertheless, in 2002, against all the odds and through an initial ‘prisoners pen-pal’ contact and subsequent weekly correspondence with a New York writer and psychoanalyst, Stephen Kurtz (now living in Mexico and an old friend of the film’s UK director Mike Dibb), Donny began an intense and mutually transforming friendship. This relationship, expressed through over 500 letters to each other, lies at the heart of this film. And while Donny revealed himself to be a fluent and incisive writer, even more remarkably, with encouragement from Steve, he became a dedicated and extremely gifted artist – despite being refused access to conventional painting materials and forced to make brushes from his own hair and to synthesise his pigments from the coloured sugar coatings of M&M’s and Skittles.

As Donny himself cannot be interviewed, his life and emotionally charged journey of self-discovery is presented in the film via quotations from his many letters (read by the award-winning American actor Stanley Tucci). Donny’s ‘voice’ thus becomes the driving force of the documentary, articulating its main themes and topics, from his childhood to the present. Interwoven with Donny’s own words are vivid and articulate contributions from other remarkable people involved in his life, among them his brave and resilient mother Helen Grimes, his now close friend Steve Kurtz, and his San Francisco-based prisoners’ rights lawyer Charles Carbone. A further emotional level is added through music, in the form of some specially recorded jazz/rock improvisations for electric guitar and a few specific songs (from Merle Haggard to James Taylor) that have particular significance for Donny: ‘Music has always been a refuge in my life…the need for a well-done, raw-edged electrical guitar is at my core.’

Donny’s ordeal is an inspiring example of one man’s astonishing resilience and personal transformation, achieved in defiance of a gratuitously cruel prison system that locks up more of its citizens – mostly the poor – than any other country. And this unusual and provocative film celebrates creativity and friendship as the essential routes to self-realisation for prisoners whose humanity is systematically denied. As Donny wrote in his first letter to Mike Dibb:

‘Yes, Mike – Steve (Kurtz) is my dearest friend and knowing him has dramatically changed my life for the better. Who knew that what I considered doodling with a homemade brush of my own hair would become my art career… Here I am in hell, indefinite confinement, and love continues to surmount the walls and come to me…’

Whether ‘indefinite confinement’ continues to be Donny’s fate was determined by a parole board hearing held in California’s High Desert State Prison on 19 April 2018. Despite the overwhelming evidence of Donny’s complete rehabilitation while in prison, his parole was cruelly not granted, with even a second hearing denied for a further five years. While the hearing could not be filmed, the tension leading up to the board’s negative and heartbreaking decision, and its momentous emotional repercussions for Donny, his family and everyone else in his life, constitute the moving last sequence of the film.

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