Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Talking Tribeca: O.G.

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.

Directed by Madeleine Sackler
U.S. Narrative Competition

Any time spent in prison is likely to change a person, even if it’s just a short stay. For those incarcerated for multiple decades, the effects are considerably more intense and may present someone completely unlike the person who first went into the system. Returning to life without the same restrictions on personal space and behavior can be especially jarring for those who have spent years behind bars, and the run-up to an anticipated release is a time fraught with excitement and positivity but also uncertainty about what comes next.

Louis (Jeffrey Wright) is a very affable inmate at a maximum-security prison who gets along well with the guards and is afforded a certain respect from other inmates. Earlier in his twenty-four-year sentence, Louis ran the prison, but now he has moved past that to keep to himself and focus on his future. As his release date nears, Louis is forced to confront the man he has become as he meets a young new inmate, Beech (Theothus Carter) who he fears may go down the wrong path, is pressed by a prison investigator, Danvers (William Fichtner), to report on illicit goings-on at the prison, and comes face-to-face with a relative of the man he killed as part of a restorative justice program.

There are so many prison movies that have been made, and one of the most iconic and famous ones, “The Shawshank Redemption,” was released right around when Louis would have started serving his time. This film succeeds at feeling fresh and important because it doesn’t dwell on predictable tropes of the genre and instead shows Louis as a relatively comfortable resident of his own cell who works in an auto body shop each day. He is so close to freedom yet it’s apparent he won’t be nearly as well set-up on the outside as he managed to make himself over many years in his current situation. His stature inside the prison is evident when Danvers describes their latest conversation as below their paygrades, to which Louis jokingly responds that they definitely make different salaries.

Wright is an incredible actor whose profile has been slowly building over the past few decades, winning accolades for “Angels in America” and his continuing role on “Westworld.” This performance is exceptional, anchoring the film and demonstrating just how at ease Wright is with any character, capable of capturing what it feels like to live in his skin. Carter makes an impressive debut, all the more astounding because of his status as an inmate of the prison where the film was shot. Documentarian Madeleine Sackler pulls off an extraordinary feat by filming the movie in a prison with real inmates and real guards, giving the film a definitive authenticity. Given its genre, it’s not quite as harrowing or miserable as it could be, and instead serves as a captivating but also mildly optimistic look at life behind bars and what comes next.


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