A little over a year ago, voters ousted Chesa Boudin as San Francisco’s district attorney, ending the 2½-year reign of a prosecutor who had eliminated cash bail and vowed to hold police accountable.
Boudin—a pioneer of the so-called progressive prosecutor movement—was seen by many as a lightning rod for growing discontent in the city over rising property crime and disorder on the streets.
The former DA dipped back into San Francisco politics on Wednesday with the debut of a new documentary about his life. Beyond Bars: It’s Movement, Not a Moment chronicles Boudin’s 2019 campaign for San Francisco DA on a progressive platform, how his life was shaped by the incarceration of his parents—two famed members of the radical militant group the Weather Underground—and how these stories intersect with systemic issues facing families across the criminal justice system.
The premiere at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium also doubled as a rally of sorts to energize progressive voters for the city’s November 2024 election, and the ousted DA did not mince words on how he sees the current state of city governance, which he called a “dictatorship.”
“It is horrible to watch what is happening in this city,” Boudin said during a panel discussion following the screening.
It wasn’t clear whether this barb was directed at District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, the prosecutor who replaced him, or at Mayor London Breed—who’s pushing the city’s recent crackdown on crime as a cornerstone of her reelection bid in 2024. Boudin did not respond to The Standard’s request for clarification of the comment.
Whoever was his intended target, Boudin insisted that “this campaign and this movement was never about me or my career.”
He added that he chose not to seek reelection in 2024 to avoid repeating “the same mistakes that my parents made of putting politics before family.
“I had to think about how could I continue to do work that was so profoundly important to me, to my community, the city that I loved,” Boudin told the audience.
The U.S. criminal justice system has shaped Boudin’s life from the start. As chronicled in the film, Boudin was just 14 months old when his parents—then Weather Underground members—left him with a babysitter to take part in a botched heist of a Brink’s armored truck in 1981 that ultimately left two police officers and a security guard dead.
Boudin’s mother, Kathy Boudin, who died last year after a long battle with cancer, was released on parole in 2003 after serving more than 20 years in prison and became an advocate for criminal justice reform, people with HIV/AIDS and children's literacy. Boudin’s father, David Gilbert, was imprisoned for 40 years before his sentence was commuted by former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021. Gilbert was in attendance at Wednesday’s screening.
The pain of the separation between Boudin and his parents is documented with heartfelt excerpts from letters between Boudin and his imprisoned father, as well as collect calls and candid interviews with Gilbert and Kathy Boudin before her death. Throughout the film, Boudin’s parents express remorse for participating in the Brink’s heist and leaving behind their infant son.
The documentary also illustrates the emotional toll Boudin experienced as a child moving between the stable Chicago home of his adoptive parents, another Weather Underground couple named Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and visiting his real parents behind bars. Dohrn recounts in the film how Boudin as a toddler would fall into two-day temper tantrums, and Ayers recalls how the clang of prison doors haunted the adolescent Boudin. The film also stresses how even short family visits like the ones Boudin was able to have with his family as a teenager can offer short stints of normalcy for families separated by incarceration.
Social media footage from Boudin’s 2019 campaign for district attorney, as well as policy accomplishments from his tenure, such as abolishing cash bail and filing unprecedented homicide charges against a former SFPD officer, also illustrate the optimism and momentum of the progressive prosecutor movement at the time.
Director Robert Greenwald, who is also the president of Brave New Films, the social justice-oriented not-for-profit film company that produced the documentary, said he was drawn to Boudin’s story because it illustrates the universal pain of family separation.
“The idea of four parents—two locked up, two not—it’s extraordinary,” Greenwald said.
The filmmakers hope that Boudin’s story—intertwined with those of formerly incarcerated people, prison reform activists and children with parents in prison—will mobilize reforms. The documentary will be screened in several U.S. cities this winter before being released on the Brave New Films website in mid-January.
Boudin told the Standard the film was “a story about mass incarceration and racial injustice in this country, and one person's struggle to fight for a better, safer world.”
Despite the recall that forced him from office prematurely, Boudin believes that “the movement of progressive prosecution and criminal justice reform is growing. It has momentum. And I have tremendous confidence that the policies and practices championed by this movement will continue to advance safety and be popular amongst voters.”
Boudin told Wednesday’s audience that he was excited to see who would step up to run against Jenkins to become the city’s next DA. He added, “I'm so excited to see who's going to step up and beat London Breed.”
Christina Campodonico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org