Ex-Death Row Prisoner Rickey Jackson & Director Matt Waldek Discuss Their True Crime Doc “Lovely Jackson”

June 13, 2022

Written by Kelli Marchman McNeely

Kelli Marchman McNeely - Horror Fuel CEO & Executive Producer Email: [email protected]

When it comes to true crime, there are thousands of documentaries, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a lot of them. There’s one new documentary headed your way that is different, more profound, and more emotionally charged, Lovely Jackson.

 

In the documentary, the life and wrongful incarceration of Rickey Jackson are explored. Rickey was convicted of murder while just a teen and sentenced to death before his sentence was commuted to life in prison three years later. He spent the next 39 years fighting for his freedom. You see, Rickey was innocent, and the only thing that tied him to the crime was a lie told by a 12-year-old boy, who eventually recanted his statement. Rickey was convicted without evidence and even had a witness tell the police he wasn’t the man. But still, Rickey spent the majority of his life in prison until the Ohio innocents Project came to his aid. Finally, he was set free. Lovely Jackson is his story.

 

I sat with Ricky and the documentary’s director Matt Waldek to talk about Lovely Jackson and Ricky’s life and fight for freedom.

 

 

Kelli: “I have to say, Rickey, you have an amazing, crazy life.”

 

Rickey: “Yeah, I have.”

 

Kelli: “Ricky and Matt, your documentary is incredible, the best true crime doc I’ve seen all year. It’s so powerful.”

 

Rickey: “Thank you for saying so.”

 

Matt: “We think so [laughter]. Yeah, we think so too. We think it’s the best we’ve seen all year.”

 

Kelli: “So Rickey, from the moment you were arrested to when you walked free, exactly how long were you incarcerated?”

 

Rickey: “39 years, eight months, and six days.”

 

Kelli: “God, that is a long time. You have every reason to be angry and bitter. How are you not?”

 

Rickey: “Because actually, I don’t have a right to be angry. You can choose to be angry if you want to. I spent many years in prison being angry, hateful, and mistrusting of people, and I lived like that for so long that I was afraid it was becoming a part of who I would always be. And once I discovered that I was about to be set free, I knew that I didn’t want to live another day of my life like that. You know? I got an opportunity that a lot of people don’t get in my position, and I didn’t want to waste whatever time I had left on this earth being angry and resentful about something that happened to me in the past. Yes, it was a big something, but it was in the past. What was I going to do with the time that’s in front of me?”

 

And that’s a decision I had to make, you know?  But in order for me to do that, I know that I had to forgive the people who had done this to me. Otherwise, these people would continue to be a part of my life, and I would be carrying them on my back forever. And that was a big part of me forgiving my accusers and the people who punished me, beat me, and lied to me because what was ahead of me was more important than what was behind me. You know?”

 

Kelli: “Right. Well, that’s an amazing way to look at it. And tell me how you went about showing it in the documentary, about how you depicted the emotion that was involved.”

 

Rickey: “That was this guy’s doing [points to Matt].”

 

Matt: “Yeah. Well, I mean that I love that, you know, being a horror outlet; I love that you picked up on this movie so much because that’s exactly what it is in a way. That was the only honest way; one of the only honest ways into the story for me was Rickey saying, “I wanted people to experience the fear that I woke up with every day and the danger that was there every day.” And yes, Rickey managed it and came up with the internal world that helped him survive, but there was actual physical danger there. And there’s also psychological danger. You can become isolated; you can give up. Right? He’s at the parole board three times, and they’re asking him to admit guilt. It’s called the innocent prisoner dilemma. Right? I mean, that is psychological torture.

 

You can have your freedom if you betray your internal moral compass. I mean, that’s the definition of psychological horror, right? Compromising yourself and your integrity because you have a monster, in this case, a prison, that’s not letting you escape. So there are a lot of horror elements to the story. And Rickey’s so creative that we sort of talk about it in this way we’re talking about it. And it became like, okay, there’s always a Minotaur in the maze. You know, there’s always a monster in the maze. And so, bringing the prison to life to be a metaphor for his memory that he’s taking us through, but also a physical antagonist rotating and warping as his different external forces change his trajectory, was how we set about telling it visually.

 

The prison rotates as things go wrong for him, and then it unwinds as things break positively for him. And then the prison’s sort of creaking and crying out and belching and all these things as he’s trying to make his way following the exit signs out. So, that was Mark Hamer, our visual effects artist. He did a great job with limited resources and is a talented guy. Hopefully, he gives the audience an exciting experience and this amazing emotional story.”

 

Director Matt Waldeck

 

Kelli: “Well, I sat down a few days ago and watched it; it has stuck in my head since then. And the image that keeps popping back up is when he was convicted, and then the scene flashes to him screaming. That’s just like it is wedged in there now. It’s really powerful.

 

So, why make the documentary?

 

Rickey: “Well, I got a lot of other offers from writers and producers who wanted to do my story, but immediately upon talking to them, I knew it was just going to be pretty much another cookie-cutter documentary with the interview headshots and the very little background story. But I’ve watched those shows, and there’s very little emotion involved. You know? And so after you’ve seen one, you’ve seen a dozen, but as Matt said, we used to sit out on my patio and just brainstorm. And he was telling me, “I don’t want to do it like that. I want to do like a movie version type documentary”.  We have the interviews, but the story is more important. We wanted to capture the emotion of the human endeavor and what people go through going through something like this, which many documentaries don’t give you.  And it was a risky venture, but, as you can see, I think they pulled it off and did a good job.”

 

Kelli: “You two absolutely nailed it.”

 

Matt: “Oh, that’s great to hear. Yeah. I mean, a lot of how Rickey survived inside was his imagination. So I think that this documentary was important that it be imaginative. And we somehow make regular people who could never understand what is required or what it would feel like to do 39 years for something you didn’t do, to be 82 days away from being killed by the state in the electric chair. How does anybody tap into that? So, you tap into it with common emotions that we all experience, fear, love, hope, frustration, and forgiveness.”

 

So to me, the story was we were going to tell Rickey’s story, no matter what. Still, directing it didn’t ultimately happen until COVID happened to number one, and number two, the creative conversations with Ricky and my relationship with Rickey; honestly, I don’t think anybody else could have done it. I think it’s the way we did it, where Ricky is saying his dialogue, improvising that in the scenes with professional actors, there’s no way that a stranger coming in could have possibly done that in a responsible manner that wasn’t, in my opinion, probably manipulative on some level.

 

Kelli: “I’m so glad you and Rickey are telling the story. The documentary had a big impact on me. Don’t tell anybody, but I may have cried a little. I have never done that before while watching a true crime film.”

 

Matt: “Of course, and you know what, that’s really what we wanted. Not necessarily to make people cry, but for people to tap into emotion, that human side of themselves, and sort of like, ‘you know what, I’ve been going through some stuff myself,’ and it might not compare to 39 years in prison, but to you, it’s your thing. It’s what you’re going through. And nobody can tell you how big or small it is. And so we hope that we inspire people after watching the film to be able to dig within themselves and overcome whatever is in front of them. You know?”

 

Kelli: “Right. It’s, it’s mind-blowing. It is. I can not imagine what it would be like sitting on death row as the time ticked away and you got closer to death. What was on your mind, Rickey?”

 

Rickey: “Honestly, it was never death. It was never about death. We had our little community back there. We were in our world, and we kept each other up. And, as a matter of fact, we used to joke with each other when our execution date was coming up; we would like, guys were like, make sure you leave me those house shoes when you go or something morbid like that. But I never thought about dying in the electric chair. I just didn’t. I thought about just living every day, writing; I used to sit back, they had a letter-writing campaign, and that’s all I did after I worked out in my cell, ate my lunch or breakfast; I would write letters all day and put postage stamps on them all day. Like 20 letters a day or however many I could afford. I was just writing everybody and telling them about my story, and I’m sitting on death row about to be executed for a crime I didn’t commit. I mean, I suppose it was on my mind, but it wasn’t on my mind. You know?

 

I don’t know. I just like if that day came, I don’t know how I would’ve responded or how I would’ve reacted, but knowing me, I probably would’ve been, I don’t know. I would’ve been afraid. Everybody’s afraid to die, but I would’ve just accepted it. You know? I would’ve had to take it because there’s nothing I could do to get out of it, so why not make peace with the moment? You know? If there was no way for me to get out of there and there was a certainty that I was about to be executed, I would have to make peace with the moment.”

 

Kelli: “Well, we’re glad you didn’t have to make peace.”

 

Rickey: “Me too. Me too.”

 

Kelli: “All right. Now tell me about the prison that the documentary was filmed in. It looked so familiar to me. Where was it filmed at?”

 

Matt: “Mansfield Reformatory, Mansfield, Ohio.”

 

Rickey: “Shawshank. Have you ever seen Shawshank Redemption?”

 

Kelli: “Oh, my god! Yes!’

 

Ricky: “That’s the prison. Yes.”

 

Matt: “That’s the prison Rickey was in, in 1976.”

 

Kelli: “Oh, wow! What was it like being back there to film?”

 

Rickey: “It was surreal, and the moment I stepped into the prison, through the reception doors, it seemed like the whole place inside my head just came alive. The noise, the smell, even though the prison had been deserted for years, and it’s now… They use it for tourists now. The moment I stepped inside, all those sounds, those smells, the noise, the clammer, it just came back. It just came back like it was deja vu. You know?”

 

Kelli: “Wow. I don’t know if I could have done it; go back in there.”

 

What are you two hoping to accomplish with the documentary?”

 

Matt: “Well, obviously commercially, you know, I think about it, there’s a, it’s a business. So, I’ll just address that and let Rickey address the human and spiritual goals. But yeah, I mean, I hope it gets a theatrical release. I think that it is deserving that on some level. I think it’s cinematic enough that I think it’s important that people watch this in a room together and experience the dynamic of the theatrical experience and how that affects people emotionally. I think that’s important. It’s kind of rare for documentaries to get that these days, but this is a rare documentary that…, it’s not a journalistic piece, it’s not an investigative piece, it’s a cinematic piece that is driven by emotion. So I think that’s good cinema. So I’d like to see it in theaters. I’d like to see it out before the end of the year. And I would like to see it also on a major streamer with a good marketing budget behind it, so it actually gets seen by people. Yeah.”

 

Kelli: “Is it going to any film festivals coming up?”

 

Matt: “Yeah. So we’re world premiering on June 17th at the American Black Film Festival in South Beach, Miami. That festival has been around for 26 years and is one of the most significant events for black Hollywood. And that also takes place on Juneteenth weekend, which is obviously an important holiday here in this country and embodies themes of liberty that Rickey’s story rubs up against. And that’s also Father’s Day weekend, which is also relevant to this story and the movie’s title.

 

Rickey: “My goal is to not necessarily bring awareness about the system and how bad I was mistreated, but I’m more interested in the human side of it and what can people take away from it and equate it in their own individual lives and they own individual tragedies and hardships they going through. I hear a lot of people say I couldn’t have done that. I didn’t know I could do it. I didn’t think I could do it. You know? So, as I said, I just want to touch people emotionally and ask them to look inside themselves and find their inner strength and be able to overcome whatever obstacles they got going on in their life. It might not be 39 years in prison, but it might be something else, and your thing to you is a big thing. I want people to watch this movie and see how things, from tragedy to triumph, and that we all are capable of stuff we didn’t know we could do, we all are.

 

Like I say, people say I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how you could forgive, but you have to walk the journey, and hopefully, by showing this, watching this film, they’ll be able to walk some of the journeys with me because I think Matt did a great job of capturing the emotional aspect of this journey. The trials and the tribulations, the disappointments, the heartbreaks, and the triumph. As I said, that’s what I want more than anything; of course, the film is to be successful, but that’s what I would like people to take away from it. And that’s why I think it’s essential.”

 

 

Kelli: “And talking about triumph you have! I know one of your dreams throughout those 39 years was to have your own family and be a father. How’s it feel now that you have that?”

 

Rickey” “Oh, it’s fantastic. I mean, it’s indescribable. If you ask any father, they have their days when you want to kill them, but you know what, overall, I tell my wife all the time if this was the ending outcome, I would do it all over again. I would suffer all the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune, and I would do it all over again if I knew for sure that this would be the outcome because it was well worth it to hold my daughter. After all, there were times during this journey that I was ready to resign myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be a father, a natural father, and I was okay with that. But, as it turns out, my wife is a great, strong lady. We tried three times, she had three miscarriages, and I was like, I can’t see you go through this again, I can’t, and she said, we got to try it one more time. And that one more time gave us Lovely Jackson.

 

Kelli: “I’m so sorry for your loss. That’s heartbreaking. In the film, when you and your wife are in the delivery room with Lovely on her way, I was so excited for you.”

 

Rickey: “Thank you.”

 

Kelli: “So that’s amazing. And what are you doing now?”

 

Rickey: “I still, I’m doing speaking engagements. I’m getting ready to go to Amsterdam tomorrow, as a matter of fact, and we’re going to talk about the criminal justice system the effects it has on the community and the public, and at large. And I think they’re trying to start an innocence project over there as well, but yeah, we going, we got invited to Amsterdam. This opportunity has allowed me; this film has allowed me to do a lot to get out there and speak publicly, not only about my situation but also about social issues that affect everybody; I mean, on this journey, I’ve met many people from all walks of life who now have pain in prisons and the criminal justice system; it doesn’t matter your occupation or money. I mean, the system is geared like that; anybody could be trapped in it. You know?”

 

Kelli: “It’s a scary thought. Our justice system is so out of whack.

Matt, you think you could have handled what Rickey did?”

 

Ricky: “I think he could have. People would be surprised what they can do when faced with it. It’s easy to say, “No, I couldn’t have done it,” cause nine times out of 10, it will never happen to you. But as I said, I didn’t think I could do it. You know? And even to this day, how did you do that if somebody did that? I don’t know exactly. I don’t know exactly how I survived 39 years in one of the most brutal prisons in Ohio, coming off death row; I’m 20 years old, weighing about 165 pounds, and in a murderous environment. The stuff I had to witness while I was in prison was a horror show. And I had no wherewithal as to how to survive that. I just knew I had to keep on living. That’s the best I could tell you. And I got a lot of help along the way from my mother and fellow inmates in prison, like they just saw something different in me than the average prisoner. And it is something about someone innocent in prison that you don’t usually get out of other prisoners.”

 

Kelli: “They knew you didn’t belong there.”

 

Rickey: “They knew I didn’t belong there. I was 20 and almost fell down that rabbit hole, trying to be a prisoner, but my mom told me, “Look, boy, you went in there as Rickey Jackson, and that’s who you better come out with of there as. You’re not a prisoner. You are captive”. I was captured. I wasn’t a prisoner. I didn’t commit a crime. And so, I had to wrap my mind around that concept to break away from the prison culture. I started reading books. I started educating myself. I stayed away from the prison culture as much as possible, and that’s how I did it physically. Mentally is a whole different ballgame.”

 

Kelli: I can’t imagine going through what you did.  And Matt, how did you first hear about Rickey’s story?”

 

Matt: “I read about it on the news in 2016. So Rickey got out in November of ’14, and then he didn’t settle with the state of Ohio until 2016. And that’s when I saw it; I learned about his story for the first time. And I tried to get it; I knew I just immediately sparked to it. I knew it was an amazing story. I had never met him, but I wanted to get in touch with him to see if we could tell his story. And I cold-called every lawyer listed in the news article, and nobody got back to me; nobody returned my call. And then I just, like ten months went by, and then I was just giving an update with one of our company’s investors, and I said, I came across this great story and this guy named Rickey Jackson. He goes, ‘Rickey Jackson, like the guy that was in prison?’ I said, yeah. And he goes, ‘he’s my next-door neighbor.’ That’s a true story.”

 

Rickey: “True story.”

 

Matt: “He’s a next-door neighbor. So, after ten months, I was probably sitting to interview Rickey, maybe two weeks later. And we sat together for probably three days straight, three to five hours at a time, just getting his life story. And just sort of feeling it out and seeing if it would make for a good film and seeing what kind of person Ricky was. And since then, obviously, we didn’t go into production until we got the financing together in July of ’20. And then we started, we shot our first film frame in October of ’20. And since then, it’s been, honestly, it’s been a transformative experience, and a great friendship has developed for me.

 

And I think it’s a fantastic thing. And I mean, I’ll never do anything like this again in my career, I know for a fact, because they’ll never be a better story than this to tell, and there will never be a better person to help platform their journey. Who’s so gracious, humble, courageous, and heroic in my eyes. So that’s how I came about in a long process, but it seems like everything took a while for Rickey. But it worked out.”

 

Kelli: “It sounds like a twist of fate. It’s fantastic, Lovely Jackson. It is a very moving documentary; I picked up on it because we also cover the true crime. But knowing what Rickey faced, that’s horror if I’ve ever seen it. You know?”

 

Matt: “But it’s an incredible journey.”

 

Kelli: “Yes, it is. I’m happy it turned out well for you, Rickey and Matt. And after everything you’ve gone through, Rickey, you deserve the utmost happiness.”

 

Will you be making any of the film festival screenings? Both of you?

 

Matt: “Yeah. We’re headed down to South Beach, Miami. Rickey will be coming from Amsterdam, where he is speaking at the John Adams Institute, and he’ll be flying in and getting in. And we’ll both be at the premiere Friday, June 17th, 4:15 at the South Beach Regal 18, I think it is. So we’ll be there, and we have planned other festivals throughout the country and some international dates, but we haven’t heard if we’ve gotten into those festivals yet.”

 

I was honored and blown away talking with Rickey and Matt. Rickey’s story is such an incredible one. He’s such a genuinely nice guy, to top it all off. Matt and Ricky have created such an incredible documentary. If you watch one documentary this year, make it this one. Hopefully, a release date will be announced soon. Follow Lovely Jackson on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook for regular updates and more.

 

 

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