Sleepers is one of the most emotional and engaging films of the 90s. Directed by a talented director (Barry Levinson, the same who led Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man) and featuring an exceptional cast (Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, and Vittorio Gassman, among others), the film has also received two Oscar nominations, without winning any. It represents one of the coldest and most exciting descents in US prisons, particularly juvenile jails. There is a long-running debate about whether it’s a true story: in this article, we will discover the truth.
You can find the official trailer of the movie here on Youtube.
Sleepers: the plot explained
The film’s protagonists are four boys, inseparable friends, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood of New York. The four minors choose to do odd jobs for the local gangster, King Benny, and at the same time are followed with paternal supervision by the local priest, Father Robert Carillo, who does everything to keep them out of trouble. One day, however, trouble arrives: while trying to rob a hot dog cart, they make the cart fall down the subway stairs, seriously injuring a citizen. They are arrested, tried, and sentenced to detention in a juvenile correctional institution, Wilkinson Home, for anywhere from six months to a year.
In the detention institution, the four boys become victims of sexual abuse and violence at the hands of four guards on duty, a group headed by Sean Nokes. Nokes will be the one who will take the initiative several times to the detriment of the four boys, raping them, beating them, and making sure that their stay in those walls becomes unforgettable for the boys.
Years later, with the four boys grown up and out of the institution, lives have changed: two of them are street killers, another one (Shakes, the film’s narrator) is a news reporter, and the fourth (Michael) works in the prosecutor’s office. The two killers meet Nokes by chance, and everything comes back to their mind: they sit next to him, just long enough to ensure that even the guard remembers them, and then they kill him with their gunshots in a public place with several witnesses.
To work on the case on the side of the prosecution is Michael, the fourth of the boys, who decides to complete a drawing of revenge of a lifetime: his idea is to ensure that the two friends are not convicted and that the violence that was taken to the correctional institution would emerge. Nokes’s accomplices are still alive and enjoy a comfortable life, having never received formal charges.
The trial proceeds according to plan, and the most crucial element that will convince the jury of the defendants’ innocence will be the sworn testimony of Father Carillo, who will make the heavy decision to lie under oath and testify that he spent the evening with the two accused the night of the murder.
All the guards will receive the consequences of their revenge: one of them will be arrested for corruption and murder after Shakes uses his connections to provide evidence of her crimes; another guard will be killed by another gangster after being informed that this was the guard who had killed her younger brother in prison, who died in the same institution as the other four. And the last guard will admit under oath that he took part in the violence against the boys.
Is Sleepers a true story?
The film is based on the autobiographical novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra, i.e. Shakes, the boy who will become a reporter as an adult. Sleepers is presented at the beginning as a true story, complete with confirmation of what happened to the four boys afterward. And in the credits, the film confirms that the story told in the book by Carcaterra is accurate, although names, dates, and times have been changed.
After the book’s release, the seriousness of the matter led to further investigations. The competent authorities declared that they did not find any connection between the facts told in the book and the New York detention institutions, nor did they find evidence of the existence of a process similar to the one described in the story.
Director Barry Levinson was interviewed about it and said he believed in the story. “I see no reason why Carcaterra should have made up that violence if it hadn’t actually happened.”
Years later, it cannot be said with certainty whether the story in Sleepers is true, as there are valid reasons for who believes in it and who doesn’t. But it’s definitely a believable film, telling a story that could have happened, with elements that actually occur and have been tried many times in the history of the United States. For the viewer, perhaps it is not essential to know if Sleepers’ protagonists existed: it’s anyway a shock to see how horrific a mistake’s consequences can be in an underage boy’s life.