Sleepers, the book and the movie: is it a true story?

Sleepers is one of the most emotional and compelling movies of the 90s. Directed by a talented director (Barry Levinson, the same one who starred in Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man) and with 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 drops in US prisons, particularly juvenile jails. There is a long debate about whether it is a true story: in this article we will discover the truth.

You can find the official trailer of the film here on youtube.

Sleepers: The Plot Explained

The protagonists of the film are four boys, inseparable friends, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in New York. The four minors choose to do odd jobs for the local mobster, King Benny, while at the same time being followed with fatherly supervision by the local priest, Father Robert Carillo, who does everything possible to keep them out of trouble. One day, however, trouble strikes: while trying to steal 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 at a juvenile correctional facility, Wilkinson Home, for a period of between six months and one year.

At the detention facility, 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 on several occasions to the detriment of the four boys, raping them, beating them and making their stay in those walls unforgettable for the boys.

Years later, with the four boys grown and out of the institution, their lives have changed: two of them are street killers, another (Shakes, the film’s narrator) is a news reporter, and the fourth (Michael) works at the prosecution. office. The two assassins run into Nokes by chance, and it all comes back to his mind: they sit next to him, long enough for even the guard to remember them, and then they shoot him dead in a public place with several witnesses.

To work on the case on the prosecutor’s side is Michael, the fourth boy, who decides to complete a revenge drawing of his life: his idea is to ensure that the two friends are not convicted and that the violence that was brought to the correctional institution would emerge. Nokes’ accomplices are still alive and enjoying comfortable lives, having never been formally charged.

The trial is proceeding as planned, 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 difficult decision to lie under oath and testify that he spent the night with the two accused the night of the murder.

All the guards will receive the consequences of his revenge: one of them will be arrested for corruption and murder after Shakes uses his connections to provide evidence of his crimes; another guard will be assassinated by another mobster after being informed that it 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 participated in the violence against the children.

Is Sleepers a true story?

The film is based on Lorenzo Carcaterra’s autobiographical novel, that is, Shake, the boy who will become a reporter as an adult. Sleepers is presented at first as a true story, complete with confirmation of what happened to the four children afterwards. And in the credits, the film confirms that the story told in Carcaterra’s book is true, although names, dates and times have been changed.

After the book’s release, the seriousness of the matter led to further investigation. The competent authorities declared that they found no connection between the facts reported 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 the story. “I don’t see any reason why Carcaterra should have invented that violence if it hadn’t actually happened.”

Years later, it cannot be said with certainty if the story in Sleepers it is true, since there are valid reasons for who believes in it and who does not. But it’s definitely a believable movie, telling a story that could have happened, with elements that actually do happen and have been proven many times in American history. For the viewer, it may not be essential to know if the protagonists of Sleepers existed: it is still a shock to see how terrible the consequences of a mistake in the life of an underage child can be.

Read other true stories behind movies and TV series on Auralcrave

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