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Charles Dutton Holds A "Captive" Audience

By The Showbuzz's Melissa Castellanos

Emmy Award-winning actor and director Charles S. Dutton captivates audiences with his dramatic performances, and in his latest project as both an actor and director, he's also leaving them with a cliffhanger.

The audience will be left guessing after seeing his new Lifetime movie "Racing For Time," which chronicles the trials and tribulations faced by a prison guard with the Texas Correctional Youth Authority.

Cleveland "Stack" Stackhouse, (played by Dutton) tries to combat racial tensions, drug addiction and detrimental life decisions among female offenders through a track program. The character is inspired by real-life prison guard Noel Chestnut.

"What I took away from him was that he (Noel Chestnut) was a dedicated man. He sacrificed a lot of his own personal life in dedicating his time and efforts with these young women that were in the institution," Dutton told The Showbuzz. "He could have just went home, checked in, punched a card and just not cared about these girls, but he didn't. In my estimation, he was very heroic."

Photos: Night of Glamour For NAACP
Although some of the girls became inspired to turn their lives around, Dutton ultimately wanted his audience to recognize the reality and gravity of their situation.

2In the final scene, one of the diamonds in the rough goes down the wrong path again and returns as a re-offender. But, the scene ends before revealing who the re-offender is. After the movie premiered last week, forums on Lifetime's Web site were buzzing with speculation (and a little frustration, too.)

According to Dutton, the female re-offender is not the story's main character Vanessa, whose real-life fate is written in the film's end titles. Dutton said he wants to leave the ending open and not reveal the identity of the returning prisoner in order to underscore the vicious cycle in which many offenders are caught.

Dutton also feels that the film takes a fresh approach to the prison film genre by focusing on the lives of female inmates in a realistic way.

"So far as the story itself, if it had been a story about young boys, I probably would not have done it as a director or an actor because we have seen that story over and over again," Dutton said. "I chose to do this because it was about young girls and to cast some light on the fact that most, practically all, women's institutions, whether it's adult or juvenile, have hardly no rehabilitative programs in those institutions at all. We should pay a lot more attention to the correctional situation that is happening with women and young girls as well as with men."

Photos: Image Award Highlights
A Baltimore native, Dutton has been in and out of correctional institutions from the ages of 12 to 26, on manslaughter and armed robbery charges. Needless to say, he can relate to the pressures of street life.

"I was a reckless kid with no direction. I never considered myself a vicious person or a mean spirited person. I never started fights, I would finish them. I spent time, like a lot of black men in my generation, in and out of institutions because somehow it became a morbid right of passage for young men in my community to prove themselves, to prove their manhood, to prove their worth," Dutton said. "I thought it was more happening on the streets than in the classroom. I was intoxicated with street life."

Dutton said he didn't encounter any positive correctional officers, instead he found only "racist, frustrated ex-policemen."

The 44-year-old actor has come along way from his troubled youth. While incarcerated, Dutton read his first play and started a drama group with his fellow prisoners.

"I looked out into the 'captive' audience - pun intended. I saw that I had these guys in the palm of my hand. I could make them laugh. I could make them cry. I could make them pensive. I could make them reflective. I could make them sit up in their seats. I could make them sit back," Dutton said. "I felt this eerie kind of power. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but it was like having stage presence. I had just discovered what I was born to do on this planet."

Dutton earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Towson State University and later went to Yale Drama School where he began working with acclaimed playwright August Wilson and director Lloyd Richards.

"I went from jail to Yale," Dutton said. "I spent 7 1/2 years in the penitentiary. Once I got out, 7 years and 8 months later, I was starring on Broadway. It just goes to show you (what can happen) if you put your mind to something."

Dutton often speaks to high schools and prisons to talk with aspiring actors. He recently visited Martin Luther King Jr. High School in New York City.

It's fitting that "Racing For Time" is airing during Black History Month (February) since Dutton has been an inspiration for African Americans.

Photos: Rosa Parks
The actor received a NAACP award for his starring role in "Roc" that aired from 1991 to 1994 on FOX.

"We had a great time with this series. They don't let you do that kind of television when you are an African American," Dutton said. "We were way ahead of our time doing that kind of format."

His film credits include: "Against the Ropes," (which he also directed), "Get On the Bus," "Mimic," "Crocodile Dundee II," "A Time to Kill," "Mississippi Marsala," "Alien 3," "The Distinguished Gentleman," "Rudy," "Surviving the Game," "A Low Down Dirty Shame," "Cry, The Beloved Country," "Random Hearts," "Cookie's Fortune," and "Secret Window."

His TV roles include the HBO miniseries "The Corner," ABC's "The Practice," and CBS' "Without A Trace," among others.

Dutton is currently starring in the new John Sayles film, "Honeydripper," with Danny Glover and will star later this year in "The Express" with Dennis Quaid.

"Racing for Time" will be airing encore performances throughout February and for six months thereafter.