“War is a matter of vital importance for the province of life.”
Intertwine. That’s what stories do. Take pieces of the world and the self and twist them into one. The new digest on interpersonal war, starring do-o-o-pe-ass lyrical artist Saul Williams, “Akilla’s Escape” is a strong act of intertwining.
The State, the father, the mother, the son, the gang and the memory. These are the threads of Akilla’s testimony.
Akilla is a distributor of illegal, natural goods. On the verge of going legal, he wants to take his business in a new direction, one his associates do not like. This night, he walks into one of his dispensaries and right into the eyes of a double barrel. The perpetrator, a young man enmeshed in a coil of self, gang and family. He’s also a mirror image of Akilla.
Akilla has no choice but to save him.
Along the way, Akilla is reminded of his own past coil. A father who is a General in the local gang, an empathetic mother who understands the fissure that happens when the individual engages the institution and a State that cares only for its own justice.
Set in 1995 New York and 2020 Toronto, “Akilla’s Escape” bounces between present-day mission and memory from a fractured personal history.
Clinton Avery Brown (Ronnie Rowe) is Akilla’s father and the centerpiece to his emotional trials. It is from him that passage into manhood, which is often gained by warring, is illuminated. That pathway is laid with a father’s need for preparedness and protection. A father’s awareness of war is passed down to his son.
That pathway is also laid with a mother’s resistance. Is it our job to destroy a child’s innocent worldview in order to prepare him for the war of being? Or do we preserve that child’s purity and let the world teach how vitriolic it can truly be on its own?
Director Charles Officer (The Skin We’re In) employs an elliptical approach to depicting gun violence, an easy hand with cultural saturation and a street-journalist artistic approach to imagery in this cautionary tale of the revolutionary spirit—the spirit that simply cannot comply with the State.
Alcoholism, violence against loved ones, drug dealing and use. This war is a sickness. It is a war that has been waged against the baby before it draws its first breath. That truth capsizes the brain.
Having this conversation within this context may be a disservice to the point. The usefulness of gang-life in navigating the wasteland of social and political warfare is lost in how we are conditioned to respond to Black + male + blunt + gun + kilos. Our level of awareness would have to be cosmic to see Clinton Avery Brown as more than just a villain and perhaps even Akilla.
An enjoyable, but confusing watch, “Akilla’s Escape” plays it mostly straight, except for one ultra-poetic choice: to cast Thamela Mpumlwana as both Young Akilla and Sheppard, the same young man who robs adult Akilla only to find himself in need of Akilla’s lifesaving help.
Mpumlwana’s performance as both is strong and expressive, but this casting choice does nothing but confuse the genre. Is this sci-fi? Is this an alternate timeline? What is happening? The choice to have Adult Akilla never verbally address what this means to him unnecessarily distracts from our co-twining in his internal war.
And with the gorgeous alt-art visuals, rhythm of elevated dialogue and casting of the legendary Black radical artist Williams, it is difficult to see “Akilla’s Escape” as it is: another Black-excellence flick.
Young Akilla reads. He quotes from narrowly-read books. He’s not like the other thugs. He’s unique. Moral questions of good and evil are removed in the interest of commentary on ordinary and special. A character can be trusted to demonstrate something fresh when they are a surprise, but like any other narrative rooted in assimilationist optimism, Akilla is simply special.
It’s possible that “Akilla’s Escape” could be just the opposite. Akilla could be just another thug reaping his karma and this whole thing could be atonement. But the questionable significance of so many details make it too ambiguous for clear sense.
Director: Charles Officer
Writer: Charles Officer + Wendy Motion Brathwaite
Cast: Saul Williams, Thalema Mpumlwana + Ronnie Rowe
Producers: Vertical Entertainment, Martin Katz, Jake Yanowski + Erin Berry