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Sing Sing.jpg

TIFF 2023: Colman Domingo Dominates in the Striking ‘Sing Sing’

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 13, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 13, 2023 |

Sing Sing.jpg

John ‘Divine G’ Whitfield (Colman Domingo) is front and centre, dressed elegantly and in a crown, lit like a true star. He recites the closing lines of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream before being engulfed in uproarious applause. He and his cast take their bows, remove their costumes, then go back to their cells. He is an inmate at the Sing Sing maximum security prison, alongside his fellow actors, who are using theatre as a form of rehabilitation. Now it’s time for their next production, which means a new play, new cast members, and something to hold onto as they all fight for parole hearings, better treatment, and something to keep them going.

Based on a true story, Sing Sing, which opened to an intense audience response at TIFF that included a long-standing ovation (it happened, I was there), centres on the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program that has helped thousands of former prisoners through the decades. They do Shakespeare, dramas, thrillers, and, in the production depicted here, a madcap comedy that involves ancient Egypt, pirates, gladiators, Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ monologue, and Freddie Kreuger. It’s not just a timewaster for these prisoners. It’s a reprieve from the cold, constricted world they’re stuck in for the foreseeable future.

It’s a great story, and it would have been painfully easy for director Greg Kwedar to spin it into yet another inspirational Hollywood flick full of Oscar baity performances. Crucially, he never loses sight of the real people whose story he’s telling, and the cast includes several men who were RTA performers, each getting real moments to shine amid a crowded ensemble. This includes Clarence ‘Divine Eye’ Maclin, playing himself to marvellous effect, a new recruit to RTA who struggles to find his truth amid the group exercises and inherent silliness of acting. Through his bond with Whitfield, who has spent decades being a model prisoner and finds true optimism through the program, Divine Eye starts to open up, becoming the Hamlet of this mish-mash play that, frankly, sounds amazing.

There’s not a drop of inauthenticity among this cast, whether it’s from the charismatic and endlessly watchable RTA cast (who deserve many film opportunities after this), or the professionals who include Sound of Metal star Paul Raci (as the group’s director) or the magnetic Domingo. Long one of our most compelling performers, Domingo has been busy these past few years with stuff like Euphoria and the excellent Zola. With one of the best voices in the business, he can seamlessly switch from jovial to exhausted to furious, embodying the erratic nature of a life behind bars. He can command an audience with Shakespeare monologues, put on his ‘polite’ persona for parole hearings, and shrink himself down to avoid attention. The biopic Rustin might be what gets Domingo the lion’s share of critical attention this season (that film is also playing at TIFF), but his work here should be commended as strongly.

To be an actor is in total opposition to the demands of being a prisoner, as the men often note. The prison industrial complex relies on a steady stream of bodies (more often than not those of Black men) to stay in business. You are there to be broken down into tiny pieces and dehumanized, not to better yourself. The actors find space to be more than that but they, and the audience, never forget where they are. Every day is an emotional trial, and every sliver of happiness you can find amid the bleakness is a battle well-fought. Sing Sing fights not only for these men’s right to humanity, but for their right to pursue art. Many prisons lack programs like RTA, and even ban items like books to further punish already-crushed inmates. Theatre can heal, as this real-life opportunity can attest to.

Art is also about feelings, and Sing Sing truly finds its voice in showing the necessity of offering these men a safe space to open up about their lives, fears, and the genuine trauma of incarceration. Even Whitfield, who is kind and encouraging, cannot help but feel stifled by his circumstances and lash out. Their scrappy productions, with recycled costumes and handmade sets, brim with their emotional realizations, the perfect outlet for performer and audience alike. We see how these men find much-needed tools through seemingly random exercises such as walking like different characters. It doesn’t take you long to invest in them, to want more and to see them flourish. A visit by a former inmate sees the men relishing in descriptions of simple joys like walking the dog and going on a car ride. There’s not a drop of condescension in this portrayal, a story mercifully bereft of narrative cheats. You can’t help but feel relieved that this was the film we got. Admit it, you can see the Hollywoodized version if your head and it misses the point entirely.

It’d be easy to throw around terms like ‘crowdpleaser’ and ‘heart-warming’ to describe Sing Sing but those feel reductive. This isn’t a film designed to make you smile, although it often does through sharp humour and the irrepressible charm of its cast. Its agenda is clear and it wants to share that with the widest possible audience. It feels condescending to boil it down to a good time for viewers who have no stake in something that is truly changing lives (According to the RTA, less than 5% of their members return to prison, compared to the national return rate of around 60%.) Come for the message, stay for the charm, and think about what art has done for you lately.

Sing Sing had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It currently does not have a US distributor.