‘The System,’ a film that conveys themes of power abuse in the U.S. justice system through a well-crafted, action-packed narrative, finds its strength within a tense situation inhabited by intriguing characters. The story begins with Terry Savage, a caring single father whose life has gone downhill since his return from the Marines. As a result, in a feat of desperation, the man attempts to rob a drug house only to get caught by the authorities in a drug bust. However, following his arrest, Harvey Clarke, the Commissioner, offers to cut Savage a deal if the latter agrees to spy on ruthless Warden Lucas and bring back evidence of the rumored human rights violations in his corporate-funded private prison, Degnan Correctional Institute.
Backed into a corner, Savage agrees to undertake the risky solo mission. As the film unfolds, its narrative explores a central shared story that remains rooted in a prevalent social issue, namely the many nuances of prison labor. As such, viewers might be curious to know more about the characters that made up the social environment of the prison, particularly whether or not they have a basis in real life. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Terry Savage Is a Fictional Character With a Realistic Backstory
No, Terry Savage from ‘The System’ is not based on an actual person. Since the film, directed and written by Dallas Jackson, is a work of fiction without a tangible basis in a real-life event, the characters depicted in the film are similarly fictitious in nature. Therefore, Terry Savage’s character is entirely a fabricated detail created by Jackson and brought to the screen by Tyrese Gibson in service of the plot.
However, even within his fictional confines, Savages’s character manages to depict a certain reality of the prison system due to his backstory. Although introduced to the story as a robber, Savage’s character soon establishes himself as a respectable and admirable man once his decorated past within the Marines comes out in the open. With the context of his military service and subsequent issues in his civilian life, including but not limited to financial and medical instability, viewers are able to understand the character’s motives.
In a way, Savage’s story as a war veteran who fell into a criminal path highlights a relevant social issue. According to statistics, 2016 saw an estimated 107,400 veterans serving time in federal prison. While the events that led to their convictions vary, their predicaments could often be traced back to the jarring shift from active duty to civilian life. As such, Savage’s story, albeit fictional, manages to retain a connection to reality.
Warden Lucas and Commissioner Clarke Are Fictional Characters
No, neither Warden Lucas nor Commissioner Clarke are based on real-life people. Instead, much like most of ‘The System,’ these characters are also fabricated by filmmaker Jackson and remain confined to the world of fictionality. However, given the prevalence of the morally condemned Wardens and Commissioners’ characters within the genre of prison stories, Lucas and Clarke remain familiar to the audience.
Nevertheless, this storytelling trope of antagonistic authority figures, particularly within the prison system, emerges in part from its real-life frequency. Over time, several real-life stories have surfaced about corrupt Wardens who take advantage of their power and abuse it for their own benefit. Similarly, corruption within the police, even among the higher ranks, remains a familiar tale.
For the same reason, the startling but steadfast cruelty depicted through Lucas and Clarke’s characters shapes the film’s narrative, further highlighting the thematic resonance of power abuse within such a social environment. Both Lucas and Clarke impart a sense of realism through their distinct storylines by depicting the different ways manipulation and greed can manifest.
The Warden, Lucas, in particular, defines the tense atmosphere within the Degnan Correctional Institute. Filmmaker Jackson discussed his character in a conversation with Afro and shared, “The warden that I had on the page and the warden that Jerry Piven created is like the ultimate hybrid of what you want when an actor makes a character his own. Even some of the things that Jeremy did, being the warden, was ad lib.”
Thus, with compelling performances and the familiarity of genre conventions, Warden Lucas and Commissioner Clarke manage to deliver realistic characters with significant roles in the film’s exploration of prison labor. Nevertheless, since their storylines and actions have no connection to a real-life instance, both characters ultimately remain fictional.