(I saw this film at the Chicago Critic’s Film Festival)

Sing Sing is an incredible recreation of an incredible moment when a theater arts program helped changed the lives of incarcerated folks, including not only their story but the play they created together.  Too often when a film carries the promise that it was “based on a true story” the audience cannot assume either that the story is factual or that its relationship to those facts has any impact on its quality. Sing Sing tells the story of prisoners exploring theater together and through their incredible performances learning to reconnect with their humanity. It is not only based upon a true story, but features the actual play that was performed by inmates and many of those former inmates playing versions of themselves. The film traverses the lines between fact and fiction in such an interesting way in the nature of its creation one can be forgiven for being distracted by those details. However, despite some incredible performances across the board, the true strength of the movie is in its incredible testimony to the dignity of humans despite existing in a system literally designed to dehumanize them. The film reminds us of the power of the arts but also of the ongoing tragedy of the Carceral Industrial Complex.

Director Greg Kwedar co-wrote this script with Clint Bentley but the story credit goes rightfully to two of the men deeply involved in the narrative itself, John “Divine G” Whitfield and Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin. Maclin also plays himself in the film, while Divine G is played by none other than Colman Domingo (though he does get a meaningful cameo where he gets to play a big fan of himself). The Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York (link) is a real program where drama teachers instruct and support inmates as they produce theater. In the film we meet Divine G, a playwright who has been wrongfully imprisoned for years, and finds solace in co-leading the chapter of RTA he helped found. Looking for new recruits, the group takes a chance on Divine Eye, a drug dealer who seems a bit more hostile than the other participants in the group. The film explores so much simply by telling this story, these men who already know and love each other welcoming a new comer into the group. They have to navigate working together to stage this incredible play written by their instructor, and along the way their bonds both old and new are tested by tragedy. Yes, Sing Sing is touching and inspiring, but it is rooted in a stark reality that it never ignores. These men are conditioned by this environment to give up hope, to put up walls, to fear being weak and vulnerable. The drama of their stories reminds us of their inherent humanity and compassion, and shows how incredibly creative they can be, in spite of every aspect of their environment being designed to instrumentalize and devalue them so that they struggle to experience empathy, patience, or self respect.

The movie simply would not work without its cast of incredible performers. Colman Domingo and Paul Raci constitute the film’s two known actors, both of whom navigate difficult performances with ease, but the cast of former inmates playing often versions of themselves are also incredible. It can be distracting at times to have folks in a film playing some version of themselves, but in this context it simply adds a sense of grounding and veracity to a film that would collapse under any false pretense. Sing Sing inevitably leads to questions of what even constitutes a true story, because this film must of course be in some sense dramatized, yet it has the actual presence of the real people involved in it. They bring their grounded performances into spaces that were undoubtedly difficult for them to be in given their pasts. In fact, not only is the play they perform in the film the same play they did in real life, we get to see actual footage at the end of the film of them performing it. In this context, of a narrative film that is so closely rooted to something like reality, one performance I loved might actually be a bit controversial. Domingo is a brilliant actor, but his performances are not subtle and that continues here. I find the heights and depths of his performance enchanting, and I found the idea that this character is naturally a dramatic person completely plausible. Surrounded as he is by performers who might seem more natural and subdued, I know some friends found his performance distracting. I think that is fair and so I say mileage may vary, but personally I loved the chemistry between him and Divine Eye and I found their conflict and then comradery not only compelling but charming. Domingo is brimming with compassion in this role, and adds a measured thoughtfulness that enhances the story as well.

It is important to return to the assertion that Sing Sing is under no illusions about the nature of prisons and it depicts not only the strength and creativity of the men in RTS, but also the severity of the environment they are in. Each of us will come to this film with our own ideas about prisons and those who we keep in them. I hope for some this portrayal will broaden their imagination of the possibilities for people society has largely given up on. I come to this movie though as an abolitionist, a person who dreams one day every prison will be bulldozed into the ground and replaced with something that benefits all. Prisons are built, designed, and run as an ongoing human rights violation. They exist only for punishment and to ignore the various social and economic issues that force folks into increasingly desperate situations. The glimpse of hope this film offers does not prop up the illusion that prisons are actually keeping citizens safe or reforming the “criminals” we house there. It simply reminds us that anyone anywhere holds the possibility of something incredible, of an utter transformation, and it is often only the circumstances of the world that makes that possibility seem impossible. It doesn’t romanticize prisoners, we know that the folks in this film have, in many cases, made massive mistakes they and others will be dealing with the implications of for years. It does though affirm that humans are more than any one decision they have made, and that beauty can come from even the darkest places. Sing Sing looks beautiful, is competently edited, and, as I said, has some incredible performances, but what makes it a GREAT film to me is the impact it has. It enlivens a truth that so much of our entire society is intended to deny, that people matter.

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