SXSW 2024: ‘Sing Sing’ Tells a Powerful Story of Theater and Hope Behind Bars

Abe Friedtanzer says Sing Sing is a "transformative experience." The film stars Colman Domingo and is being released by a24.
User Rating: 9

It can be difficult to find hope when you’re expecting to spend the rest of your life behind bars. Knowing that you’ve been imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit only worsens the blow, since the presumption of your guilt is enough to poison anyone against you, no matter what you do to try to prove otherwise. That makes the accomplishments of Divine G Whitfield all the more commendable and impressive. The story of his incarceration and groundbreaking prison theater work are chronicled in one of the year’s best films, Sing Sing.

Divine G (Colman Domingo), incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, is one of the leaders of the Rehabilitation for the Arts (RTA) program. The playwright particularly loves a good Shakespeare monologue, but he fully commits himself to any production that’s being put on. He brings Clarence (Clarence Maclin) into the fold, though he’s not overjoyed when Clarence gets the part he wants in the genre-defying play written by  volunteer Brent Buell (Paul Raci). But, while he’s working on his latest appeal based on new evidence he’s found that he’s sure will exonerate him, Divine G continues to take it day by day and give RTA everything that he has.

This is a powerhouse time for Domingo, coming off his first Oscar nomination for Rustin and standout supporting roles in The Color Purple and Drive-Away Dolls. While his performances in those films are indeed terrific, there’s something different about how he plays Divine G. He’s loud and showy when he’s on stage or wants to make a point to someone who thinks they understand the theater better. But, most of the time, he’s just natural and kindhearted, willing to listen and offer advice even to those, like Clarence, who aren’t interested in hearing it. He feels so much like a real person, someone whose true emotions shine through over the course of trying times portrayed in this film.

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Greg Kwedar’s latest film benefits from many degrees of authenticity, which starts with screenwriters including the real Divine G, Buell, and other formerly incarcerated individuals, like Maclin, playing themselves. The film pays poignant tribute to the real RTA program, some of whom appear in the film, applauding those who have managed to get released and saluting those who remain behind bars. There’s nothing overtly showy about this story or the way that it’s told, and the moments in which tensions do escalate feel grounded in reality and a sincere grasp of the human condition.

An appreciation for theater isn’t necessary to enjoy this film, which does manage to find plenty of humor in an otherwise sobering environment. Those moments are so uplifting in a space that offers constant reminders of where these men are, even if there are no negative interactions with guards and most scenes feature only RTA members and Buell working on the play. Devastating news and unpredictable developments still come without warning, but there is a true sense of community to be found among these people, who all come from different backgrounds yet have found a shared interest in the new existences they must adopt.

Sing Sing manages to convey the reality of something that most people watching cannot possibly understand, meeting its characters solely in prison and as they are. They may share their histories with each other, but this is much more about their present. The entire ensemble cast makes this a raw and richly rewarding watch, masterfully showcasing the passion that these late-in-life actors bring to the roles that they have been selected to play. Sing Sing has been making the festival circuit, touching audiences in each screening with its vivid look at a community and a program many people may not know nothing about, and it will finally arrive in theaters this summer for everyone to behold. It’s a transformative experience, one that manages to transmit some small piece of these men’s lives and love to the outside world.

Abe Friedtanzer’s rating for Sing Sing is a 9/10

 

Summary
Sing Sing manages to convey the reality of something that most people watching cannot possibly understand, meeting its characters solely in prison and as they are. They may share their histories with each other, but this is much more about their present. The entire ensemble cast makes this a raw and richly rewarding watch, masterfully showcasing the passion that these late-in-life actors bring to the roles that they have been selected to play.
9
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