Bob Hope once quipped that Pebble Beach is “Alcatraz with grass.” To Valentino Dixon, the links off Carmel Bay personified something far different: freedom, peace, hope. An escape. But no one escapes Alcatraz, or in Dixon’s case, Attica, which served as home for most of his life.
“It’s got to be one of the worst prisons in the country,” Dixon tells the camera in “27 Years: The Exoneration of Valentino Dixon,” which airs Tuesday night on the Golf Channel. “It’s a brutal place, and if you don’t carry yourself in a certain way, you’re not going to make it.”
“Attica,” Dixon bluntly states, “is a nightmare.” Especially when you’re serving a life sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.
Narrated by actor Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Jack Ryan”) “27 Years” spotlights how a diversion—in Dixon’s case, drawings of golf courses—served as a conduit to freedom. However, while the sport plays a vital role in Dixon’s tale, one that ultimately delivers a happy ending, the production doesn’t gloss over the disconcerting truths. It examines the frightening and deplorable circumstances that led to an innocent man’s guilt, which includes an interview with the lead prosecutor in Dixon’s case. The show spotlights how negligence, along with racial and socioeconomic discrimination, have become feature players in America’s justice system. Through talks with Dixon’s family, the viewer sees how a man’s incarceration ruins more than just one life. Coupled with additional obstacles encountered by governmental red tape, “27 Years” can be a maddening watch.
Yet at the heart of Dixon’s story is hope. The show reveals how a team, which included Golf Digest’s Max Adler, the Golf Channel and a group of undergraduate students from Georgetown University, came together to right this wrong. Their efforts, along with Dixon’s indefatigability, shine through. And while Pierce does a fine job in guiding the viewer, Dixon’s eloquence and poise are remarkable, giving a window into the type of spirit that could persevere in the face of overwhelming odds.
Other highlights include a look into Dixon’s Attica cell, an interview with warden James Conway (who got Dixon to do his initial golf drawing) and Dixon’s visit to Pebble Beach, one of his muses for his artwork. “I put my headphones on. I got my pencils and my paper, and I’m drawing for 10 hours,” Dixon says of his golf paintings. “Blocking it all out. And that’s how I did it for 20 years.”
When cameras capture Dixon overlooking the Pacific, to see the panoramas he recreated with his drawings but never believed he’d actually see, it’s not Hope but another famous Pebble quote, this one from Johnny Miller, that rings extraordinarily true: that Pebble is “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.”
“27 Years: The Exoneration of Valentino Dixon” airs on Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. on the Golf Channel.