For fans of film noir, crime dramas, the bildungsroman, and the vast potential of modern Black filmmaking, it’s easy to enthusiastically recommend Akilla’s Escape. Screening as part of this year’s TIFF Planet Africa programme, this creative and canny film combines a meticulously clever script by director Charles Officer and co-writer Motion with a host of complex performances led by the exceptionally talented Saul Williams and impressive newcomer Thamela Mpumlwana.
Akilla’s Escape has proven to be a film that’s hard to forget. From its opening titles, Officer demonstrates the value of a bold entrance. Bob Marley’s ‘Punky Reggae Party’ soundtracks a deft montage of Jamaican history and contemporary dance, informing the viewer of the modern and colonial history, as well as moments many have tried to suppress or forget. If Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and this film have revitalized the punchy, tone-setting opening montage, we are all the better for it. The rest of the soundtrack, crafted by the multi-talented Williams and Robert “3D” Del Naja of Massive Attack, continues and amplifies the gripping combination of visuals and music — before the story even starts, the sound in your ears makes the gravity of the situation clear.
And what a story it is. Taking place over two time periods and two cities, Akilla’s Escape is one of those rarities that tells a gigantic story in a remarkably lean package — clocking in at only 90 minutes. In the 1990s, a young Akilla Brown (Mpumlwana) navigates the pressures of gang life in his Jamaican New York community, where his father Clinton (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) leads a squad of Shower Posse gangsters with as much ruthlessness as he governs his household. Mpumlwana plays Brown at this age, imbuing Akilla with palpable internal conflict; though he learns how to navigate the brutal rules of gang life and proves to be rather good at mastering them, he also resents his father’s violence, particularly when directed at his compassionate mother, Thetis (Oluniké Adeliyi). In modern-day, Williams plays Akilla, now grown up and running cannabis in Toronto, where such an operation has only recently become legal. Like many crime-noir protagonists mixed up in gangland, Akilla is thinking of getting out of the game — until he finds himself in the middle of an armed robbery at one of his associate’s dispensaries. Akilla manages to restrain one of the assailants during the heist and keeps him in his custody for the rest of the night, determined to change the boy’s fate and release him from the underworld’s trappings.
One of the many clever intricacies of Officer and Motion’s script is that this boy, Sheppard, and the younger Akilla are played by the same actor. Mpumlwana pulls double duty as the conflicted heir and the mute thief but turns in two completely distinct performances — to Mpumlwana’s immense credit, it’s easy to forget that Sheppard and young Akilla are portrayed by the same person.
While Officer’s background in theatre is likely responsible for the impeccable direction, casting, and marriage of form, performance, and language, he’s also working alongside a truly exemplary ensemble. Mpumlwana shines in two separate impressive performances, while Williams commands the screen with a presence, intellect, and coiled power recalling a modern update of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in Le Samouraï. Rowe Jr., Brandon Oakes, Colm Feore, and rapper Vic Mensa add some rich texture to the sprawling noir underworld Akilla traverses in their roles, but the most outstanding of these performances are delivered by maternal figures: Adeliyi’s electric presence as Thetis, and Donisha Prendergast as Sheppard’s mother Faye. Prendergast, notable off the bat because of her grandfather Bob Marley, is a solid actor in her own right, and her tender interactions with Akilla — in which she recognizes their mutual interest in protecting Sheppard from the hellbound path he’s on — provide a commendable emotional honesty to the character work.
Cinematographer Maya Bankovic imbues these scenes and many others with striking beauty, utilizing neon, haze, symmetry, and mise-en-scène with consistently impressive and visually pleasing results.
While many classic noirs feature dynamic performances and arresting visuals, but often indecipherable plots, Akilla’s Escape explores the intricate but accessible journey of a man whose past trauma and isolation have forced him to reckon with the world by incorporating the wisdom of others in the work. Officer highlights the considerable literary influence on the film, both through neatly embedded allusions in the dialogue, and in carefully constructed shots which capture Akilla’s bookshelf, comprised of three titles: Homer’s The Iliad, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Officer notes that, along with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, this film owes an extensive amount of its character arcs and narrative beats to these works; he and Motion have done a fascinating job of combining their compelling original story with these seminal texts to create a movie that feels just as fresh as it does classic.
What’s more, this film also feels as history-influenced as it does hyper-contemporary. Akilla’s Escape combines the intrigue, tension, interiority, and style of the classic noir genre with the reckoning and overdue amplification of Black perspectives. For a film to showcase indelible performances, exciting crime filmmaking (the heist itself is a must-see), and confront the corrosive legacy of colonialism, structural discrimination, and the shifting paradigms of Black masculinity and masculine violence, is an achievement. Many films will attempt to capture the complexity and nuance of the conversations sparked by this summer, and many will do well, but it is a credit to Officer, Motion, and his exceptional cast and crew that their film already captures so much of what needs to be said, and does it with talent and style.