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Sunday, April 14, 2024

At the Movies: Sing Sing

By Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic / October 13, 2023

Colman Domingo stars as “Divine G” Whitfield, a prisoner who makes theater a vehicle for survival and redemption.

It’s refreshing when a film poses answers to the most confounding social issues.

Countless feature films and documentaries exam the plight of systems and institutions that treat Black folks unfairly. Too few offer solutions. That’s the reason this based-on-fact and real people drama is so illuminating. It offers results.

Prison reform is a hot topic, and this production depicts it in a way that makes the rehabilitation of the incarcerated an inspiring journey. An allegory worth retelling and spreading. The setting is Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York. The RTA (Rehabilitation Through the Arts) is a small group of convicts who’ve become actors who put on shows every six months. One of their founders, John “Divine G” Whitfield (Colman Domingo, Rustin), writes many of their plays. He recruits a temperamental prison yard bully, Divine Eye (Clarence Maclin), into the group. Then the troupe, their director (Paul Raci, Sound of Metal) and key members (Sean San Jose, John Divine G. Whitfield) prepare to stage a time travel theater piece.

Writers Clint Bentley (Jockey), Brent Buell and Greg Kwedar weave reality, a play-within-a-play scenario, rivalries, jealousies, failures and hope into an extremely emotional and uplifting film. You have to love the characters; the ones society deems incorrigible. All the prisoners are interesting, but Divine Eye is so compelling because his character arc puts the dreams and goals of the theater group on display. Healing and redemption. Also, the real Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin plays himself!

Kwedar (Jockey) directs the ebbs and flows and ups and downs with a real focus on primal feelings, authentic performances and a rhythm that makes 105 minutes (editor Parker Laramie) of jailtime vibrant. It’s a vision to behold (Pat Scola, cinematographer; Ruta Kiskyte, production design; Desira Pesta, costumes; Jacob Harbeck, art direction). In between scenes, the camera focusses on exterior and interior shots that are perfectly lit and composed. Like those in an art film. And, all the depictions and interpretations of prison life resonate, especially in scenes where Domingo and Maclin test each other’s willingness to succeed despite constant setbacks.

By film’s end a feeling of love and optimism rushes over you. And knowing that some of the formerly incarcerated men from the real RTA group are in the main cast brings the film’s theme full circle. During a Q&A after the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere, the cast and crew came on stage. The real director of RTA made an astonishing claim: “67 percent of inmates will return to prison after being released. The recidivism rate for RTA members is 3 percent.” That’s because their arts therapy group rebuilds prisoners from the inside out.

Ever heard of an empowering jailhouse movie that posed even a tiny solution for breaking the cycle of mass incarceration? That’s the magic of the stirring film Sing Sing—it has answers.

Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at


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