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Colman Domingo Shines in Prison Drama About Theater

Colman Domingo Shines in Prison Drama About Theater

Founded in 1996, Rehabilitation Through Arts (RTA) helps incarcerated people “develop critical life skills through the arts.” program websiteThe organization currently offers different arts-based workshops in many correctional facilities in New York City, but theater remains its flagship program. It stages classical and contemporary plays as well as developing original works for members of the prison population, their peers, and their families.

“Art as therapy” may be an old concept in privileged abstraction, but in the context of a punitive system designed to degrade, there is real value in the idea that creative collaboration can help foster empathy and reconnect a person with their common humanity. In fact, the proof is in the pudding: While less than three percent of RTA members return to prison, 60 percent of the prison population nationwide does. By providing a safe space to be vulnerable and entertain different perspectives, RTA offers a humane alternative to criminal justice, one that focuses primarily (and futilely) on punishment as a means to an end.

The final minutes of “Sing Sing,” based on John H. Richardson’s Esquire article “The Sing Sing Follies,” feature a montage of recorded scenes from actual theater productions staged by the RTA. It’s downright emotionally heavy to see a demographic easily stereotyped as hardened lose themselves in theatrical settings, even in brief glimpses. At its strongest, Greg Kwedar’s film is attuned to the real thing, capturing the power of acting for its own sake, not just as an exercise in compassion but as a gateway to personal reflection. At its weakest, it uses acting as a cover for a raw, sentimental script.

“Sing Sing” primarily centers on John “Divine G” Whitfield, played by RTA founding member Colman Domingo, who leads the group’s new production as he prepares for an upcoming clemency hearing. Like the real Divine G, who has a “story” credit in the film and makes an early cameo, Domingo’s character was wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he did not commit and spent time in the eponymous maximum security prison to solidify his legal credentials while writing multiple novels and plays. A role model for his peers, Divine G regularly showcases his acting and writing skills at RTA workshops and enjoys being an artistic leader.

But when Divine G encourages the tough-tempered Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, who plays him and also shares a “story” credit, to join the RTA, his confidence in his knowledge and leadership abilities takes a bit of a hit. Almost immediately upon his first appearance on screen, Divine Eye defies stale clichés: one minute he’s scaring someone in the yard during a drug deal, the next minute he’s quoting “King Lear.” When he suggests to the other RTA members that they put on an original comedy instead of a drama written by Divine G, everyone immediately warms to the idea. He even gets the chance to deliver Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” speech over Divine G, who mistakenly assumes he’s the only member auditioning for the role.

Domingo is excellent at emphasizing Divine G’s magnanimity and ego-driven pretensions. The character clearly revels in being the best performer on stage, which Domingo conveys by channeling his storied theater background, and struggles to conceal his irritation and jealousy over Divine Eye’s innate arrogance. Meanwhile, Maclin impresses with his unselfconscious performance, barely concealing a well of guarded pain that he inevitably taps into on stage with the help of RTA. The friendly-enemy-brother chemistry between tested performer Domingo and newcomer Maclin radiates organically from the actors and the characters they play.

Former inmate actors, many of whom are RTA alumni and now criminal justice advocates, make up the bulk of “Sing Sing’s” supporting cast, appearing primarily in RTA group scenes. We watch as they audition for various roles, do acting exercises, and share their feelings. This is where “Sing Sing” becomes somewhat faithful to documentary practices (or at least resembles a docudrama), and it makes it even better. By centering its largely nonprofessional cast, Kwedar embraces a tender intimacy that might not otherwise be easily replicated. Their palpable authenticity and on-screen imperfections are a simple testament to the film’s commitment to truth.

In fact, “Sing Sing” generally emphasizes the filmmakers’ and crew’s extensive research on prison life and the RTA program, which extends to the production design of individual cells and the staging of “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code,” a time-travel musical comedy written by the group’s director, Brent Buell (Paul Raci). “Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code” was a real play staged by RTA and written by the real Buell. A real camel in the sense of “horse designed by committee,” the play features a role for each RTA member and includes pirates and gladiators, Shakespearean speeches and even Freddy Krueger. “Sing Sing” doesn’t hide the absurdity of the production, but it does emphasize the potential for personal growth that comes with staging it.

“Sing Sing” doesn’t exactly stumble as activism, but it relies too often on its two main players to cover up the film’s myriad dramatic limitations. While Domingo and Maclin have convincing chemistry as actors, the characters feel stock as written, despite their real-life inspirations. Their exchanges carry a predictable energy, and the emotional beats each scene demands of them feel programmed. (In this scene, Divine Eye is frustrated; This (The script telegraphs individual character developments from a mile away, which undermines the emotional power of the film in the latter half. At some point, everything starts to feel expected and you’re just watching talented people hit their marks.

Watching “Sing Sing” too often, you can feel the film’s artificial drama counteracting its embedded realism. The film’s gripping elements and valiant efforts to avoid prison-movie clichés are often at war with a narrative designed to doctrine rather than challenge on its own merits. “Sing Sing” has an unfortunate tendency to exposition rather than display, and this comes through in clumsy dialogue and visual clichés, such as an early shot of a bird on the edge of the prison walls. Kwedar and photographer Pat Scola also lean on long handheld shots and frequent close-ups to convey a general sense of “in the moment,” but the film works much better in its limited visual capacity. An overhead shot of Divine G’s cell being whisked away after a guard searches it for contraband contrasts sharply with its immaculate nature earlier in the film, neatly conveying the casual dehumanization inherent in the system.

“Sing Sing” works well as an actor’s showcase — Domingo commands the screen with ease, using every tool at his disposal, and he easily meshes with the amateur cast — but the more the film tries to emotionally engage its audience, the more its shortcomings become apparent. It buzzes as an ensemble piece, but as a two-person film it hums along; it builds its power by giving voices to the voiceless, and loses its power the moment it forces them into established screenwriting mechanics. “Sing Sing” serves as a great advertisement for the RTA, a commendable and successful program that deserves all the support it can get, but as an actual production it feels a little lacking.

Level B-

A24 will release “Sing Sing” in theaters on Friday, July 12.