In 1984, the documentarian Jon Alpert began filming three petty criminals on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. With a camera hidden in his clothing, Alpert captured the twentysomethings’ ingenuity and braggadocio – they mostly targeted retail stores with eager confidence and schemes as brazen as walking out with a box full of goods – as well as the fraying seams of their lives: abusive relationships, arrest warrants, spiraling drug use. Alpert, part of the New York non-profit Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), released his first installment on the group, One Year in a Life of Crime, in 1989, after all three had been incarcerated for armed robbery or drug offenses.
A follow-up in 1998, Life of Crime 2, caught up with two of the men, Rob and Freddy, fresh out of prison and struggling to stay clean, along with Rob’s ex-girlfriend Deliris, herself incarcerated and dogged by a heroin addiction that led her in and out of jail and prostitution since she was a teenager. By the mid-2000s, over two decades since Alpert first met Rob and Freddy, the film-maker had given up on the project. Both men had succumbed to their addictions, and Alpert assumed Deliris was gone, too. Then he received a phone call from her, still in Newark and by then sober for years. She told him to meet her, and to bring his camera.
The result, in part, is Life of Crime: 1984-2020, an achingly candid and at times brutal documentary for HBO spanning 36 years of crime, incarceration and the compounding ravages of addiction. Despite the title, the two-hour film is less about the crimes themselves than the ebbs and flows of harrowing drug abuse, the ceaseless mental burden of addiction, and the near impossibility of breaking out of a system that, over the course of the 1980s and 90s, incarcerated and stigmatized rather than treated drug addicts.
One Year in a Life of Crime premiered in 1989, the same year as the verité-style reality show Cops, which glorified police aggression and pathologized crime for 32 years as one of America’s longest-running TV shows (Paramount cancelled the program, one of the most influential shows on attitudes toward law enforcement, amid the nationwide protests for racial justice in 2020; Fox News’s nascent streaming network, Fox Nation, announced plans to reboot Cops this September.) Life of Crime, Alpert told the Guardian, was meant as somewhat of a corrective. DCTV was “not interested in following the cops around”, he said, and keen to ask: “Who were the criminals? Why are they doing this? Can we understand them?”
Rob and Freddy, whom Alpert met through a friend of a colleague at the time, were open books, eager, at least in the mid-80s, to demonstrate their ingenuity and particular skillset. “They were very, very creative, they were very, very smart,” Alpert recalled. “I was fascinated by what they were doing and their inventiveness.”
The first two-thirds of the film chronicle Rob, Freddy and eventually Deliris’s journeys from functional lives of petty crime, doing what it takes to make money (“I’m not going to make $150 a week when I could make $150 a day,” Freddy says of his life off the books) to all-consuming vicious cycles of addiction. Alpert maintains astounding access and intimacy throughout, a product both of the trio’s openness and friendships with Alpert that evolved over years of shadowing their hustles – in the back of a car, in the motel room where Deliris prostitutes herself for drugs and money, in the mid-80s kitchen where Rob and Freddy count their bills.
The 80s war on drugs was, as things go in America, never just about drugs; the decades-long effort disproportionately targeted and incarcerated black people, broke up black families and recast longstanding racism equating blackness with “dangerous” in new terms. That context largely goes undiscussed in this film – Rob is white, Freddy and Deliris are Hispanic. They are frequently surrounded by mostly black people both in and out of prison, and in one of his free stints, Rob is reprimanded by a white officer concerned for his safety hanging around in what appears to be a black neighborhood.
But the vast majority of the film is hauntingly personal, embedding in Rob, Freddy, and especially Deliris’s cycle through prison, parole officers both cold and caring, recovery, relapse. A handful of moments, particularly those harkening to a legacy of disappointment and trauma that has already played out, off-screen, in our timeline, are simply devastating: the time Freddy’s teenage daughter declares a rare day she has spent with him one of the best of her life; Deliris’s daughter Kiky, witness to so much of her mother’s suffering and abandonment, bargaining with her, at age nine or so, to not leave at night – “we know how much we love you but we don’t know how much you love us”.
Portions of the film are shockingly graphic, even as inured as we are to gore and despair: Freddy injecting a woman in the neck when he can’t find another vein; Deliris picking at her scabs or taking money from a trucker picked up on the street; the coroner opening up a bag to reveal Rob’s decomposed body, discovered days after a fatal overdose following years of intermittent sobriety.
Alpert is resolute on the film’s no-holds-barred approach to depicting the indignities of addiction. “There needs to be a reason for that to be included,” he said of numerous scenes of injections, parental abandonment, prostitution. “Here we are, 36 years into this timeline, and more people are dying from drugs this year than ever before in the history of the United States. We are not paying attention to this problem, and it is slaughtering us.
“As unpleasant as it is and as emotionally wrenching as it is, it’s ‘you’ve got to watch this, and you better watch this,’ because this is what’s happening,” or, I guess, what’s happened.”
The final section of the film follows Deliris, who after several years in prison in the 90s returns to her children and, after several false starts, remains sober for over a decade. By 2019, she had been clear of heroin for 12 years, received a city award for her service helping others get into addiction treatment, and had a loving relationship with her three kids. Alpert had been in talks with city officials for a celebration, until the pandemic shut down all plans. Like countless Americans, Deliris found her sober support systems suddenly stalled and unavailable during lockdown; on 12 July 2020, after 13 years of sobriety, three days after she last talked to Alpert on the phone, she died of an overdose. Her funeral, and reflections from her adult children, form the final scenes of the film.
“It’s not the closure that I wanted,” Alpert said of the film’s final notes, which were originally supposed to be celebratory, not a devastating reminder of how the shadows of addiction never fully dissipate. There is no narrative redemption, nor consolation for her family. But Alpert hopes, as Deliris kept an eye on legacy both on and off camera, that the film will offer a potent warning.
“This is them, by sharing, giving back to society,” he said of Rob, Freddy and Deliris’s decision to keep filming, year after year, decades apart. “They believed it, and then I believed it, otherwise we wouldn’t make the film.”