Akilla’s Escape Review: Not A Typical Gangster Flick
When I try to get out, they keep trying to drag me back in.
After a typical hand-off gone wrong, Akilla–played by Saul Williams–has to try to get the stolen product back, while navigating the slippery slopes of the relationships with all the people involved. Akilla’s Escape is an earnest attempt to tell a story about generational violence in the Black community in the confines of a single night.
I had high hopes for this because it seemed as if it would be a really intelligent look at a serious problem; one that isn’t just buzz words and univariate statements. It’s a complex issue that doesn’t always get addressed in the empathetic and knowledgeable way that it should because it’s so politicized. So to see any form of art that tries to address it in a way that is beyond the headlines is tempting to me.
It does a good job of providing context and an explanation to the problem. I wish it would have gone deeper but it’s important to remember that it’s not a documentary that has the entire runtime to dive deep into a problem. It has to tell a cohesive narrative while exploring its themes. Director/writer (along with Wendy Motion Brathwaite on the writing front) Charles Officer–known for Nurse.Fighter.Boy, a film I was unaware of but need to go and watch–does manage to bring a smart but tender eye to it, putting a lot of emphasis on the breakdown of Akilla’s family. I wish it could have gone a little deeper but it’s a solid starting point.
I have a couple issues with the flick that prevent it from getting into territory that I would consider great. Saul Williams can’t always handle what is given, as he sometimes delivers his lines in a wooden or inappropriate manner. He’s a talented musician and artist in general, and I wouldn’t say that it’s a horrible performance, but it’s a blemish. It’s unfortunate because on the surface you would think he’d be a perfect fit, given his history as a spoken word and hip hop artist; along with being a man who is clearly concerned with the state of his community and the world as a whole.
I can’t put all the blame on him, however. Some of the dialogue that he has to say is straight up hokey. Sometimes the lines are trying to be more poetic and higher than typical gangster lingo, which would be fine if it didn’t feel so off occasionally. On top of that, at certain points the conversation will not flow because it’s like they needed to chuck some poetry in there. It didn’t feel organic, it felt forced. Saul’s delivery reflects the attempt to fuse lyricism with normal conversation and it makes me wonder if him being cast in the movie had any influence on what he had to say. It broke my immersion sometimes because it made me feel as if this guy didn’t belong; and not narratively, because the film speaks on that to some degree–I meant, how did this guy manage to get this far?
You can extent my criticism of the writing to the plot and characterization. As I said earlier, it examines its message pretty effectively but not awe-inspiringly so. That’s okay, but the plot itself is predictable and I had a difficult time investing in their struggles. It shouldn’t be so difficult to do so because Akilla’s story is fundamentally tragic. Perhaps the “gimmick”–the one night aspect–restrains this and if we were given more time to see him as a person in the present then that might change.
You might think I disliked Akilla’s Escape based on the last few paragraphs but I really didn’t. I was entertained the entire time, despite the faults. None of it is truly bad, it’s just a little rough. It has some legitimately great material, such as the visual style and the music.
First, the music. It makes sense to me that a soundtrack that’s part Massive Attack’s 3D and part Saul Williams. This turned out to be a match made in heaven because it doesn’t matter if it’s the more electronica-fused bits or where there’s more emphasis placed on the hip hop, the words, it’s golden. From night clubs to more intimate spaces like a home, it adds a real sense of atmosphere and gravitas to everything and is placed perfectly within any given scene. The soundtrack also brings the emotion to its peak at the end, with a truly beautiful song to ring out the movie; it’s the kind of track I want to put on repeat on Spotify, and it’s the closest I came to caring about the characters. That is the influence of a powerful soundtrack.
But it wouldn’t matter how good the tunes are if the visual style didn’t match it. While I’m not as impressed with the film as a whole as I could be, I see a lot of talent when it comes to Officer’s directorial presence. Everything on screen is drenched in character and oozes personality; the way he plays with colour to create a menacing tone in normal locations is a thing of beauty. The camera is always placed well, he doesn’t need to resort to flashy posturing with how he shoots his subjects in order to make it feel stylish–though I have no problem with flashy if the director is great at it. Of course, the cinematographer deserves a lot of credit here as well.
Akilla’s Escape, like Penguin Bloom (check my review) before it, is available to rent at the TIFF Digital, and I do recommend giving it a spin despite my reservations towards it. There’s a heart beating in there and I wish I could have loved it more, but I understand that others might find more in there, especially if it’s something that have personal experience with in some respects.
THAT'S ENOUGH, GET TO THE SCORE
A BETTER TIME INVESTMENT THAN ROBBING DRUG DEALERS
Akilla’s Escape undeniably wants to say something important. Props should be given to it for that, even if it flubs it to some degree. While the weaknesses prevent it from being special, there are special moments–specifically the music and the visual and artistic design.