It’s not hard to make the connection between gladiator games and Oklahoma’s modern-day prison rodeo, in which the state’s convicts ride bulls for the entertainment of public spectators, falling off their asses and crushing their heads along the way. In fact, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo makes this point more or less explicitly at several points: One prison guard refers to it as a “rough-house rodeo” (the participants receive a minimal amount of training), and a contender says he’s seen guys come out of it with holes in their head.
Throughout, the film circles around the sociological significance of the rodeo, which is the only event of its kind in the country, recently allowing women (who are disproportionately incarcerated in Oklahoma), several of whom are prominently featured: Crystal, a fiery twentysomething whose only job has been cooking and selling dope; Foxie, who’s reunited with her estranged mother after 17 years; and Jamie, who killed a john when she was a teenager and has been awaiting parole ever since. Director Bradley Beesley is obviously sympathetic to his subjects, at one point lining them up for a family-style portrait, but it’s never clear why the women are so hell-bent on competing (desperation?) or what larger point Beesley is making, either about them or the state’s drug-prison-industrial complex.
One of the problems with documentaries like these is that it’s difficult to separate the material from the analysis. You keep watching mostly for the same reason people line up to the rodeo itself: to see a lot of down-and-out inmates with nothing to lose risk death and get the shit beat out of them. It might’ve worked as a lazy magazine think piece, but as it is, it’s pretty cheap entertainment.