The film “Shawshank Redemption” is an American classic that has topped the IMDb’s top movies list since 2008. Despite it’s positive ratings, the movie completely failed at the box office upon its release in 1994 (it had a production budget of 25 million dollars yet the domestic total gross only got up to 28 million after 3+ years) . I believe that the cause of this is the political opinions of critics (there will be more detail on this in the next paragraph) during 1994 and the slow/long pace of the movie. The movie tells the story of Andy, a banker who was wrongfully accused of murder. He is thrown into a prison and is forced to adapt to this environment. The movie is a critique of the American justice system and its treatment of inmates and prisoners, Most stereotypes on prisons display them as a place where only the strong survive. This setting of extreme violence gives people the idea that most prison inmates are the worst people on the planet which is a subtle strategy of dehumanisation.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the justice system was focusing on a new threat of men of color coming from the inner cities and lower income residential districts. This made the justice system focus on extreme strictness on law breakers which led to the skyrocketing prison populations and the mass incarceration of criminals, no matter the severity of the crime. The movie did not fully describe prisons at the time of the release date (for example, the movies prison population was mainly made up of white/caucasians) but it was still a criticism of corruption in prisons. Despite this, public support for being “tough on crime” was high at the movies release date and most people did not care about the inhumane treatment of law-breakers because of the common belief that this kind of harsh and difficult treatment was necessary for rehabilitation (spoiler: it was not). Since it was a movie critical about the justice system in an era when people wanted tough on crime policies, a movie humanizing criminals was bound to have some negative critics.
The other reason this movie did not do well in the box office is because people are less interested in slow paced emotional movies. Prison movies especially are often made to show violence and action between prisoners in a theme where only the strong survive. In addition to this, prison is a relatively unknown place to most ordinary civilians (and movieviewers) so media and movies created the general opinion that prison is such a horrible place. This may explain why the existence of prison in a film is often also the location where violent action happens. The shawshank redemption, despite fully criticizing the use of violence, abuse, rape, and psychological torture in the prison environment, unlike some other films does not make the audience focus on these harsh aspects of the story. It still showed how it could happen, but instead of completely focusing on these things (like most action movies would), it still focuses on the main characters great achievements. This made the movie unique but also extremely unconventional when comparing it to most prison films. For example, midnight express, another popular prison break film, shows a man sent to prison for reasons that are unfair, yet this movie made back much more money than shawshank. I believe this is because because unlike The Shawshank Redemption, which criticizes the united states prisons, Midnight Express criticises turkish prisons and a foreign government, making it much less controversial in hollywood upon its release. The story of Shawshank Redemption may have simply been too new of an idea in the film industry to have the overwhelming success that it has now.
The movie criticizes multiple points about prison: the cruel treatment of inmates, the corruption of authority figures in the prison/justice department, and the ways in which the prison exploits others for its own benefit. Throughout the film the audience is presented with the following: two deaths caused directly by the guards and warden, food in the prison cafeteria filled with worms or maggots, prisoners are not being given the resources to properly rejoin society, (this leads to one of the characters to commit suicide once he leaves prison due to his lack of experience or knowledge with the real world), severe beatings by guards, and torture by use of solitary confinement. The movie also shows a warden who uses the people in his prison to gain money. This is especially obvious in the case of the main character who is almost forced to help the warden and the guards financial situations once they discover he has skills in banking. Andy later has evidence for his innocence and demands to have another trial but the warden does not let him because andy is the one person who is aware of all the bribes and financial transactions the warden has received over the years. Despite all of these horrible things and events, the movie somehow manages to divert our attention from them. While the events of the film create a negative opinion towards multiple characters, the movie almost always moves past these dark moments and show the audience how Andy cleverly solves all of the problems he encounters. This is how the film resists dominant ideologies of the time when it was released.