The drug-running gangland drama is hardly a new concept, but in a genre that risks becoming a copy of a copy of a copy it’s nice to see the odd breath of fresh air. As the opening credits of Akilla’s Escape roll, we see footage of Jamaica’s independence from British rule, the cementing of the JLP and PNP as political rivals, and the subsequent deadly violence that marred the fledgling nation for decades to come. With that, you get the idea that writer-director Charles Officer’s take on the drug-running gangland tale has something more to say about how certain areas of society develop, how they function, and how they survive.
Fast forward to contemporary Toronto, where Akilla (Saul Williams), a veteran of the cannabis business, is intent on winding down his operation in light of national legalisation. When thieves connected to Jamaica’s Garrison Army – a gang once led by Akilla’s father and grandfather – crash one of his final deals, Akilla unmasks Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), an unwilling youngster who risks enslavement by a way of life that he will likely not survive. Staring into the face of his own haunted past, Akilla makes it his mission to free Sheppard from the game.
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No stranger to the exploration of street life and the value of identity, Officer shoots Akilla’s Escape through a strikingly colour-heavy lens, combining his experiences growing up in Toronto with his own Jamaican heritage. His focus is not so much Jamaican gangsters as it is the development of the island’s post-colonial culture and the ongoing influence it has on its sons at home and abroad. The core theme of identity holds up throughout, personified by Akilla and Sheppard’s respective journeys, and the former’s recognition that the opportunity to reclaim one’s life from brutal mentorship is rare to the point that it simply must be taken, even if it calls your own values into question.
Akilla is the classic wannabe enlightened criminal. He has a code, reads and quotes Homer, and, like his father, fancies himself a strategist in the mold of Sun Tze, all while working under the umbrella of an operation that does not hesitate to commit murder or to lure young, vulnerable men at the bottom of society into harm’s way. What makes him compelling is the subtle and wonderfully tired performance of Saul Williams. Fans of his activist-driven, socially and psychologically in-tune brand of hip-hop (his 2004 self-titled album is well worth looking up) will be familiar with the cool, self-aware edge that defines him as an artist, and he does not disappoint when it comes to adding real meat to Akilla’s bones.
Joining him front and centre is Thamela Mpumlwana, who mirrors Akilla not only as Sheppard but directly as his teenage-self, where he spars with the fantastic and savage Ronnie Rowe, featuring as Akilla’s father and Garrison Army leader Clinton. Mpumlwana brings a much needed sense of empathy to both characters and stakes his claim as a talent to keep tabs on. Heading up the strong supporting cast is Donisha Prendergast, who lives up to her essentially royal Jamaican roots (she is the granddaughter of one Robert Marley) with a raw and engaging performance.
Matching the picture’s vibrant look while driving the tone is the pounding score composed by Williams alongside Massive Attack legend Robert “3D” Del Naja. It would be almost impossible to be let down by such a combination of talent, and indeed the beat creators come through with an electric, ever-evolving set of tracks that amplify each scene in more ways than one.
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Not without its gangland tropes, Akilla’s Escape does at least make a real attempt to draw on the human side of the genre. For the most part, it succeeds, thanks to Officer’s examination of the big picture from several previously underused angles, and Williams’ channelling of loss and redemption through his performance as Akilla.
Vancouver International Film Festival runs from 24th September to 7th October 2020. You can find our coverage of VIFF here.