'The Black Rock' premieres on Alcatraz

February 17, 2009 7:20:29 PM PST
There was a party on Alcatraz Tuesday night. It was the world premiere of a new film called "The Black Rock."

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Starting Tuesday night visitors to the island will get a fresh perspective.

Most people know about Alcatraz's history from 1934 to 1963 when the island served as a federal penitentiary. Most people have heard of its notorious inmates including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

But, a drug kingpin named "Bumpy Johnson" is part of an untold Alcatraz story.

Photos discovered by San Francisco filmmaker Kevin Epps, who created the documentary called "The Black Rock," reveal the large presence of African-American prisoners.

"It's just an incredible story of the human spirit, of being able to survive and persevere despite the conditions they were living in," explains Epps.

The conditions included cells and dining halls that were completely segregated, which turned some criminals like Robert Lipscomb into prison activists.

Epps went on to say, "These prisoners were challenging the administration and challenging the system, much like what was going on in American society."

Historian John Templeton helped with the research.

"The fact that Alcatraz could be the leading tourist attraction in San Francisco, and it never comes up that one-third of the prisoners were black, causes us to say what else is out there?" he said.

George Devincenzi worked as a guard at Alcatraz from 1950 to 1957. He is now 82-years old. He tells of murders, stabbings, numerous fights and of a black inmate who helped him stay awake on the overnight shift.

"I think he killed three or four inmates himself. He was pretty vicious, but a nice guy to talk to," he said laughingly.

Memories like that from guards and prisoners are part of Kevin Epps' film. It was a 6.5 year project. Now, clips from The Black Rock will become part of the permanent tour at Alcatraz, offering a fresh perspective for the 1.5 million tourists who visit each year.

People who cannot make the red carpet premiere on Alcatraz Tuesday night can click here to find out where in the area it is playing.

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