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Interview with ‘Akilla’s Escape’ Director Charles Officer and Stars Saul Williams and Thamela Mpumlwana

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Early in September, Film Daze staff writer Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller spoke with Charles Officer, Saul Williams, and Thamela Mpumlwana about their new film Akilla’s Escapewhich is screening as part of TIFF’s Planet Africa programme.

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller: Congratulations on the film, and featuring in TIFF’s Planet Africa. I know it’s been a wild, tough week, how is everyone?

Saul Williams: It’s been a crazy week in terms of our timelines and the pandemic. But it’s been beautiful to be a part of this project, because of the intention, and the heart and spirit that’s in this story, and what Charles and Motion, his-cowriter, set out to do. It’s nice to be connected to something meaningful.

NBB: Charles, I noticed The Iliad, The Art of War, and Notes of a Native Son featured in the background of one scene and picked up on your interest in The Little Prince. Could you tell me about the literary influences on the film?

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Charles Officer: The literary entry point for me was Achilles, this warrior, and the idea of his weakness, the Trojan horse, strategy, and the politics involved in war. The Art of War was something I always respected and read young, and it’s taken time to decipher what some of those passages mean to me. Of course, I can’t not take it in the context of being a Black man, because these are the elements we have to equip ourselves with and learn about — the mythology of violence, where we find self-governance. That’s what I was taught as a young Black man, by my mom and father, from the get-go. Baldwin is a prolific speaker for the Black experience and has been a guiding light for me. Akilla as a man has had other books, The Art of War and The Iliad, but he’s been carrying Baldwin’s words, and that’s how he handles situations. In the final standoff scene, he’s the only person not holding a gun. He’s the only person who surrenders to changing the cycle. 

SW: Part of the importance of adding Baldwin into that cocktail of literature was crucial for the critical gaze on the reshaping of masculinity. That’s a huge part of who Akilla is, when the audience meets him — someone who has challenged himself to say, what my father thought made him a man is not what makes me a man. In making the film, Charles is exploring how we can put an end to generational trauma, and the question of manhood —particularly in relation to the feminine. So many of Akilla’s actions related to his relationship with his mother, and how he cannot condone this prevailing idea of masculinity if it intrudes on her womanhood. The stories we’re talking about here were written by men, but the vulnerability in Baldwin is crucial. It’s not just that he writes about the Black experience, he also reframes the masculine experience.

NBB: Saul, I wanted to ask you about your crafting of Akilla as an older character.

SW: Charles and Motion wrote a beautiful script that answers a lot of the questions actors would normally ask. So, the keys to unlocking Akilla were all there in the script. What I loved most about him, even though I spent months leading up to the film physically training — a good excuse to get a trainer and really go for it — was the relationship that Akilla has to violence. He prefers to not go there, but not because he’s weak or afraid — we learn the reasoning behind it as the film progresses. It reminded me of figures like Bruce Lee, who say ‘I’m not really here to utilize the tools I have unless it’s completely necessary’.

Saul Williams photographed by Andrew Gura

CO: Saul understands violence in a unique way. He’s bringing perspective to the work, and it makes my job easier.

NBB: Thamela, how did you feel stepping into the other half of this character? 

Thamela Mpumlwana: I wanted to approach it from the story’s origin, and focus on establishing the process of how this person arrives at the later destination — navigating the terrain that leads up to Saul’s character, the older Akilla. Having moments of budding wisdom, seeing how that’s established, and trying to embody it. Then you have the perspective of Sheppard, which is supposed to be not quite an imitation but more so a reflection of who young Akilla would grow up to be, so then you’re trying to establish what that would look like, how is that represented today?

CO: The kid’s a genius. For him take on multiple roles in the same film, for a young person to hold all that information… He becomes an entirely other character as Sheppard.

NBB: It was hard to believe that the characters were played by the same person, they were crafted to really seem like separate figures.

TM: The way the script is written, it almost has to be that way. That’s where I could see the genius, and where I could be inspired to get involved in the way this needed to be executed. 

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NBB: I wanted to ask about the use of the noir genre, both in the writing and direction, and in creating a noir soundscape with the soundtrack.

CO: There are a plethora of films I love, but I rarely see Black people in film noir. So I want to place ourselves within that. I also love the idea of the neo-noir; I found Drive interesting, and La Haine as well. I want to see us in that, our version of it. It’s a desire to position Black characters in the realm of the genre. Jordan Peele does it with horror and science-fiction — but we are welcome to every space that cinema offers, and we should be there.

Charles Officer

SW: The soundscape that Robert and I were interested in sonically would lend the “noir” depth that I can appreciate in a score. I thought it lent itself beautifully to Akilla’s Escape.

NBB: How did you approach working with this cast and crew, particularly in building tension in something like the Acropolis heist sequence?

CO: I have to hand it to our DoP, Maya Bankovic — women don’t often get a chance to shoot crime pieces, but it came down to us discussing point-of-view, and putting up certain parameters regarding how we would handle violence. That really influenced that scene, from there to the final shootout. We had to make a choice between making a Michael Mann-style crazy piece like Heat, and something that subverts how we’ve seen these scenes and films rendered.

NBB: How did it feel stepping into the noir genre — and would you return to it again?

SW: Hell yeah. I decided I wanted to act after I saw The Shining. I always wanted to do horror and psychological thrillers. For me, this was a pleasure.

CO: I think we’ve got to inject ourselves in these genres. I’m down, and I’m down to do it with Saul and Thamela all over again.

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