“Yes, I committed crimes because I was very ignorant and confused and troubled. But with a little knowledge and a little polishing up, with opportunity, the world looks much different,” says Bryant Pearson, a drug dealer turned professional optometrist in the film “All I See Is The Future.”
Pearson, who was convicted in New York on felony drug charges, knows that many would throw the label “felon” at him and look past his drive to improve his life and will to create a better future. After leaving prison and starting a career, he now uses his story to encourage those who have been incarcerated and to fight mass incarceration. Pearson argues that prisoners who have been released have already been tried and should not be continually judged and denied opportunities by society.
“All I See Is The Future” is a 14-minute documentary short showcased through Odyssey Impact, an interfaith organization that uses media to promote social change through conversations. The documentary, produced by filmmaker Nancy Dionne, focuses on the life experiences of Pearson, who began work at Dr. Carolyn R. Powell’s Bay Street Optical Pavilion on Staten Island after being released from prison.
Following the documentary’s premiere on June 22, I attended a discussion panel moderated by Odyssey Impact’s Executive Director Judge Victoria Pratt that included Dionne, Powell, Pearson, Ray Boyd (the program director of the Yale Law Racial Justice Center), Darrin ‘DJ’ Sims (director of Truth + Transformation Initiative at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights), and Robert DeLeon (the executive vice president of The Fortune Society, an organization committed to supporting the formerly incarcerated and seeking alternatives to incarceration).
The documentary explores the hardships experienced by Pearson and his commitment to being an optometrist despite the stigma society holds against people who have been incarcerated. One of the primary messages of the film and the panel is that we must destigmatize the formerly incarcerated and see them as people worth a second chance.
“You never know who you are sitting in front of,” Pearson says in the film. “According to your perception of me, I am an optometrist, probably already licensed, I had a great upbringing … but that’s not the case.”
The theme of resilience was also prevalent at the screening. Pearson mentioned that despite being the face of the documentary, the documentary is not for him. Rather, it is for the world to see the harm of labeling people as “criminals” and denying them opportunities.
“Just because I committed a crime, that doesn’t make me a criminal. First of all, I’m a man. I’m a Black man, I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a brother, I’m a whole bunch of stuff.” — Bryant Pearson
“Just because I committed a crime, that doesn’t make me a criminal. First of all, I’m a man. I’m a Black man, I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a brother, I’m a whole bunch of stuff,” Pearson said. “Ultimately, the [criminal] act does not identify me … I’m way more than that.”
DeLeon pointed out that the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated persons is 27%, roughly 23 points higher than the national average. When left without a source of stable income, people will resort to breaking the law to support themselves and their families. In that sense, he argued, supporting the formerly incarcerated will lift up all of society, allowing people who have previously made mistakes to integrate back into the workforce and become self-sufficient.
During the panel, Sims mentioned that 33% of Americans have a criminal record, which prevents them from finding stable and meaningful employment despite having a strong work ethic, which has perpetuated the myth that former criminals are unwilling to work to better themselves. However, hiring formerly incarcerated people is not always easy.
Powell explained that one of the reasons she was able to hire Pearson was because her practice lacked any official HR department, many of which, she noted, dismiss all criminals outright because many HR departments are not trained to properly analyze criminal records. Yet a criminal record is not a negative thing. Speaking of Pearson’s time in prison, she says in the film:
“It was something very personal to him. He had to go through that experience in order to become better. It’s like a refinement, you know — like a lot of pressure on carbon to make diamonds.”
Churches or faith groups may enjoy this film as a way to engage the themes of redemption, grace and hope. The formerly incarcerated, the film presents, are infinitely more than that label alone — and yet we are all responsible for placing that label on them. After all, we all seek forgiveness.
Churches may also find the film useful as a way to engage the topic of mass incarceration, a term the Institute to End Mass Incarceration defines as “the reality that the United States criminalizes and incarcerates more of its own people than any other country in the history of the world and inflicts that enormous harm primarily on the most vulnerable among us: poor people of color.” Through the stories of Pearson and Powell, we see the impact of incarceration, particularly on low-income communities. Such a film may encourage communities to think through how they can help to reform the legal system to help create a more welcoming and safe community for all.
Those interested in hosting a free screening for “All I See is the Future” or learning more can do so through Odyssey Impact’s website.