San Quentin recently hosted a premiere of a documentary film starring its running club that shows how the program transformed the lives of the athletes inside the famous prison.
The film, titled 26.2 to Life, follows the life stories of three of SQ’s 1,000 Mile Club’s members, interspersed with footage of the club’s annual marathon in 2017. To complete the 26.2-mile race, runners must endure a brutal 105 laps around the prison’s Lower Yard.
Along the way, the film shows the personality and perseverance of the runners, who are often otherwise cast in the harsh light of the worst mistakes they have ever made.
“Because of this film, you all will be making a difference in the lives of people who haven’t even been born yet,” said the club’s coach, Frank Rouna.
The viewing event was held in SQ’s Garden Chapel in January to about 100 people including selected residents, outside community members and VIPs. It received rave reviews.
“I remember when we shot the film. Boy was it worth the wait,” said club runner John Levin. “It was very touching, very moving. I’m very grateful for how they brought this amazing program to life.”
Club member Steve Warren said that at first he thought it was just going to be another prison documentary. “But honestly, it was amazing. I felt like I was at an actual theater premiere,” he said.
Filmmaker Christine Yoo said when she first came into San Quentin she did not know what kind of film to make until she witnessed the club running a race. She was struck by how contrary the festive atmosphere of the race was to the bleakness of prison.
“It’s been an amazing journey the last five years,” Yoo said. “The idea that there could be an entire community around a prison was a whole new idea to me. I wanted to open people’s eyes. At the end of the day, it’s really all about that.”
One of the stars of the film is Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor, who paroled in 2019.
Taylor holds nearly all of the club’s records, including the fastest SQ marathon ever.
“The running community is beautiful,” Taylor said at the event. He said he has been embraced and supported by the outside running community since his parole.
During the film, Taylor talks about what led to his imprisonment and rehabilitation. “One thing that I know, I can’t do everything on my own,” he says in one scene.
Coach Rouna said he and Taylor also attended the East Coast premiere in November. The screening was held in conjunction with the New York City Marathon, one of several marathons Taylor has completed since his release.
After running the world-famous Boston Marathon, which he qualified for due to his running at The Q, Taylor’s story was featured on the CBS Morning Show and in the New York Times.
The other two stars of the film are Tommy Wickerd and Rashaan “New York” Thomas, who attended the screening as residents of SQ.
The film follows Wickerd and his family as they prepare for their first overnight family visit. His wife, Marion, candidly discusses her undying love for her husband and the challenges of being married to someone incarcerated with an indeterminate sentence. Wickerd’s son shares the hardships of his childhood without his father present.
“Being a parent and a husband in prison is harder than being a gang member,” Wickerd says during the film about his shift from being focused on his former membership in a prison gang to prioritizing his family and his rehabilitation. The scenes with Wickerd’s family are among the most moving moments in the film.
“It’s our family’s story. Now everyone in the world can see our story. Our story is beautiful,” Marion said when interviewed about the film. She added that she hopes this will help show the importance of family visits. “Everyone needs their mother and father,” she said.
She attended the New York City premiere and said the film “was absolutely fantastic! I laughed, I cried, I smiled. My heart was filled with joy.” She added, “I loved watching Tommy!”
The film also follows Thomas’ life story, including visiting the rough Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up. In the movie, Thomas says that growing up, “I saw myself getting killed. I didn’t see myself getting life.”
Thomas, who hosted SQ’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Ear Hustle podcast, provides some hilarious moments in the film as well as keen insights.
“If you’re running a marathon or a life sentence, it’s too overwhelming to think about how much time you got left …. You just put one foot in front of the other,” he says. Since the film was made, Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted Thomas’ life sentence and his parole has been granted.
The film stood out for its compelling storylines, but also the quality of filmmaking. The soundtrack was another highpoint.
The man behind the impressive composing and scoring is Antwan “Banks” Williams, who did sound for the Ear Hustle when he was incarcerated. Music from incarcerated artists such as David Jassy’s The San Quentin Mixed Tape is also featured in the soundtrack. At the event, Williams thanked filmmaker Christine Yoo for believing in him and pushing him to “always go bigger” with his work.
Warden Ron Broomfield attended the screening along with his wife, Kim. “I’m spoiled because I get to see all the amazing humanity from you all every day,” he said. Broomfield said that the film will inspire people to see those who are incarcerated “in a different light, a better light.”
Kim Broomfield said she had been waiting for this moment since her husband began his career as a correctional officer. “He wants everything that this film sets out to show — that rehabilitation is possible when hearts are humble and open,” she said.
One of the VIPs in the audience was Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco DA and a fellow marathon runner. “This was an amazing film, and I’m honored to share it with all of you,” Boudin said.
He said that he “may have sent some of you here as a prosecutor, kept some of you out as a public defender, and got some of you out as the DA.” But he noted that Wickerd’s struggles of parenting from prison through phone calls and visits reminded him of his own upbringing. Both of Boudin’s parents spent decades in prison.
Yoo was asked what still surprised her about the prison system. “Laws don’t necessarily reflect that people have the ability to change,” she answered. “That was one of the fundamental questions of the film: Do people have the ability to change?”
In the film, Coach Rouna says, “I don’t care what they’ve done in the past. I just care about what they are going to do in the future.” Of the club’s 45 members who have paroled, none have reoffended.
Yoo said the film will be entered into several film festivals and is scheduled for a limited theater release this year before airing on PBS in December. Fans can keep tabs at www.sanquentinmarathon. com. For residents, it is being shown on SQ TV’s institutional channels.