‘Sing Sing’ Review: Believing One’s Conviction

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Sing Sing, a brilliantly acted drama set within a maximum security prison and concerning the Rehabilitation Through the Arts theater program.
User Rating: 9

Given the setting, what’s taking place, and other aspects surrounding the premise of Sing Sing, what I very much appreciate is the emphasis on people. That may seem straightforward, but when it comes to the regard much of the free population has for people who have been incarcerated, simply recognizing them as human is not always an instinctual reaction. Sing Sing is a drama entirely about humanity. It delves into the resilience of the human spirit and the power of art and imagination stemming from minds willing to embrace it. With no time spent on standard prison movie cliches, this film focuses on the characters and their process, achieving greatness through committed performances and unassuming yet effective filmmaking.

The film is set in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison. Colman Domingo stars as John “Divine G” Whitfield, a significant part of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program (RTA). While this small group is led by Paul Raci’s Brent Buell, a volunteer theater director, Divine G is a writer, actor, and the most prominent voice the other incarcerated persons look to. For their latest production, outsider Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin (playing himself in a feature debut) is brought into the group, where he quickly shows a natural ability. As the group settles on performing their first comedy (as a break from the more downbeat dramas and Shakespeare plays they have worked on), Divine G and Maclin find themselves working harder than ever to trust the process.

See Also: ‘Daddio’ Review: An Empathic and Emotionally Unexpected Journey

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Along with Maclin, a good majority of the cast comprises former incarcerated people playing themselves. Having all gone through the RTA, with many still serving as advisors, advocates, and criminal reform activists, it’s of little surprise that so much of Sing Sing feels swept up in authenticity. Outside of the leads, Raci shines very well here, just as he did in his Oscar-nominated performance in Sound of Metal. Similarly, Sean San José, a long-time friend of Domingo, puts in excellent work as Mike Mike, Divine G’s closet friend.

With all of this being said, Sing Sing is a tremendous showcase for the talents of Domingo and Maclin. It’s not as though Domingo has had to prove anything, as recent years have shown him transition from the stage and TV to features, and he has shined in every format, regardless. Still, his work here is excellent. As the film opens with Domingo reciting a verse from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s easy to determine how locked in this film is on drawing great work out of this actor. The way he expresses vulnerability and confidence is impressive, as are the attempts to mask his feelings. There are key scenes to point to, I suppose, in terms of boiling down the work into showcase clips, but this whole performance is fantastic.

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Also pulling off something special, however, is Maclin’s exceptional work in his debut feature performance. Reading about the formerly incarcerated person’s backstory concerning his reputation, on the one hand, it’s incredible to see such a nuanced and genuine performance. That being said, thinking about how one positions oneself as someone who can intimidate others effectively and run a successful business among the inmates suggests somebody understanding how to create a character, let alone be performative. Whether or not that actually tracks, the fact is that Maclin’s rehabilitation process has led to him becoming a gifted performer who absolutely stuns in this film. He brings bravado and magnetism to the screen in a way that would surely lead to a more promising movie star career were things to be different in the way Hollywood works. Regardless, it’s stellar work that allows for a concentrated effort to further enhance what this story is attempting to offer.

Director Greg Kwedar, who co-wrote this film with Clint Bentley (and the real Divine G and Maclin both have story credits as well), makes some astute choices. One is eschewing as much as possible when detailing the criminal acts that led these people here. We know that Divine G is serving a long sentence for a crime for which he is innocent, though he does have past demons. Otherwise, some ideas surrounding his life are thrown out there, but we’re left mainly seeing him, Maclin, Mike Mike, and the others as the people who have committed to RTA. Why insert unneeded flashbacks when Domingo’s facial expressions can do so much work instead? Would seeing more of Maclin’s involvement with crime do anything to add to this story?

Similarly, Sing Sing is also not trying to focus on the inner workings of the prison setting, let alone involve the characters in storylines seen countless times before. No shivs are on display, and physical fights do not break out. We don’t even have scenes of family members sitting opposite a glass window for a familiar “visiting hours” sequence. A sentencing hearing is shown, which is only utilized to advance the overall plot, let alone help change up the dynamic involving the characters. This goes a long way to keep Sing Sing focused without overselling what’s behind it all.

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This is not a film that needs to highlight how systemic racism and class-based matters have led to so many issues regarding America’s jails. Seeking more information in this regard is not hard, and the film is proud to be connected with ways to assist those with particular concerns. Instead, however, Sing Sing wants the journey to surround how these incarcerated individuals are working to either better themselves or utilize this time as a means to separate the harsher aspects of their reality from what’s still available to them. Yes, focusing on a few characters helps direct this notion, but it should be noted that for all the drama, this movie knows how to entertain. A certain kind of joy comes through in watching this group work together, come up with ideas, and play along with the chosen story they develop (this would be Breakin’ The Mummy’s Code, written by the real Brent Buell).

I would have to imagine that making a film focused on the efforts of the RTA is cathartic to all involved. Beyond being a chance for actors to integrate themselves into something meaningful to a unique group, the formerly incarcerated persons must see this as an interesting assignment. Putting a story of how some have actually grown onto film, ideally enlightening those around them, is the kind of inimitable accomplishment ideally served by filmmakers who have the proper grasp on what they’re doing. Sing Sing, fortunately, matches what it sets out to do and is fueled by the strength of its convictions to do right by those most personally connected.

Sing Sing opens in LA/NY on July 12, 2024, expanding wider on August 2.

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Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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