Anita Williams says that her son Carey never forgets her birthday or Mother’s Day. So, on a May Sunday, she keeps her phone close. A card from Carey had arrived that day; inside it was a note addressed to “Dear Wise Matriarch.” Williams reads it aloud:
By the time she’s finished reading, Williams is beaming. Hers is a familiar glow—the happy glint of someone who’s just received genuine praise. Not some clever greeting-card lines that fit snugly into the gap between emotion and expression, or a plain statement uttered so rarely that its force derives from its infrequency, but praise that is born of reflection: Mother, you’re special, and this is why. She says, “That’s from my son, who’s in prison.” This moment, captured in Ellie Wen’s short documentary “On Mother’s Day,” gives viewers a peek into the life of Williams as a mother and activist.
In 2018, when she was an M.F.A. student at Stanford, Wen learned of Mama’s Day Bail Out, an annual campaign organized by the National Bail Out Collective, which focusses on pretrial-detention reform. The collective connected her to the Justice Group, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that supports people with incarcerated loved ones. And it was through the Justice Group that she met Williams.
Carey was convicted, in 2003, for second-degree murder, among other charges. He was sentenced to sixty-six years to life—as Williams recounts in the documentary, “that meant that I would never have seen my son as a free man.” Immediately afterward, Williams began advocating for Carey. (She denies the charge, and her work revolves around his innocence.) She “really hit the streets” with new urgency in 2011, after her grandson—Carey’s child—was killed. “Carey’s son was murdered, and he couldn’t go to the funeral,” Williams says.
In a scene outside the Alameda County Courthouse, Williams wears a T-shirt with “Free Black Mamas” written on it, and another supporter holds a placard that says “ENDMONEYBAIL.” The cash-bail system is disproportionately harsh on communities of color. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Black and Latino men are assessed higher bails than white men, and an inability to post bail not only means that they are held in pretrial detention for an extended period but also that they are four times more likely to be sentenced to prison and that they hurry to make plea deals. On the steps of the courthouse, as she reads from written remarks, Williams says, in an even and firm tone, “I am angry.”
Williams shares other emotions about her son’s circumstances, as well. “At first, it was a lot of shame. Like you failed as a mother,” she reflects, as she is seen sitting in front of her laptop at home, her back to the camera, facing a window. Then there are the daily reminders of her son’s absence: when Carey was a free man, the rest of the family used to visit Williams on the weekends, birthdays, and holidays. Carey always manned the barbecue. “And after he was gone,” Williams says, holding back tears, “it seemed like everybody stopped coming.”
When Carey calls from prison, he talks of an education program he’s in—“It’s so beautiful”—and brags about how good-looking he is. Hearty laughs are interrupted by an automated time reminder, and mother and son say their goodbyes. The respite is cut short by the vicissitudes of the criminal-justice apparatus, which is as much a commercial venture as it is a law-enforcement component. Then there’s Mother’s Day, with its attendant helium balloons, spring bouquets, brunch specials, and widespread exhortations to make sure that our mothers—and friends and strangers on social media—know how precious the relationship is. Williams is baffled by how “having mass incarceration, having private prisons to break up families,” could fit in the American narrative that seems to celebrate maternal bonds by bestowing flagship status upon the holiday. “What the fuck do I want to celebrate it for?”