Nothing is ever simple in the world of organized crime. And, as filmmaker Charles Officer captures in his riveting drama Akilla’s Escape, the complicated and vicious cycle of gang violence often has deep connections to both politics and poverty.
What was meant to be a routine deal for Akilla Brown (Saul Williams)—the last before retiring from his lucrative cannabis grow-op following legalization—goes south when he walks right into the middle of a violent robbery. Things are further complicated when Akilla finds out the robber he managed to capture—a teenager named Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana)—has ties to an international gang called Garrison Army. Originating from a politically-charged Jamaica, the group is a criminal organization that Akilla’s own father (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) recruited him into as a child.
The unexpected realization that he is tracking down the gang he once fled from forces Akilla to confront several traumas from his past. At the same time, he must also deal with the troubling realities of the present. If he does not locate the merchandise that has been stolen from Athena (Theresa Tova), a crime boss known as “The Greek”, then her right-hand man Jimmy (Bruce Ramsay) will take matters into his own sadistic hands. Seeing something of himself in the young man, Akilla walks a dangerous tightrope as he tries to fulfill his promise to Athena while keeping Sheppard and his aunt Faye (Donisha Prendergast) safe at all costs.
Akilla’s Escape is as much a tale of redemption as it is as an exploration of the systems that often keep the disenfranchised shackled to a life of crime. Though the action takes place over the course of one night, this is a story that spans generations. Officer skillfully constructs two parallel stories, which unfold simultaneously. The first paints a picture of Akilla’s childhood with his militant abusive father and caring mother (Olunike Adeliyi) and it reveals how he leveraged his book smarts to navigate the volatile world of gang life. The second focuses on a 40-year-old Akilla—a man who has grown tired of the political constructs that repeatedly keep Black lives at the bottom of the economic food chain.
From the opening credits, Officer establishes how gang culture in Jamaica grew out of the country’s turbulent political history. Partisanship and corruption sparked violence that eventually transcended borders and generations. It is in its exploration of the social structures that foster cycles of crime and poverty that Officer’s film finds the ripest fruit. One of the film’s most intriguing moments arrives when Akilla is having a face-to-face with Athena in an attempt to buy himself a little more time. Through their conversation, Officer exquisitely captures both the hypocrisy of governments legalizing and profiting from marijuana, after declaring war on it for decades, and also how those pushed into a corner where crime is the only option will show no mercy in forcing their way out. Like the red Officer cloaks Akilla in whenever he is in the safety of his own home, the social commentary positively washes over every aspect of this film.
The social awareness within Akilla, and the way it governs his actions, makes him a fascinating anti-hero. He is a not a man driven by money or power, but still lives by a strict set of principles. The character is the type of guy that will get the job done, but is unwilling to compromise his morals to do so. The subtle intensity that Williams brings to the role further adds to the Akilla’s many rich layers. Williams imbues Akilla with a sense of humanity, while ensuring the trauma he has endured bleeds through.
Akilla is a compelling protagonist who brings a fresh perspective to the well-travelled crime genre, but Akilla’s Escape occasionally struggles to balance the multiple escapes, both literal and metaphorical, that occur within the latter acts of the film. Officer has always been a director who puts complete trust in the audience to fill in the words left unsaid. While that worked brilliantly in establishing the relationships in Nurse.Fighter.Boy, not all the bonds feel fully realized here. This is most noticeable in the fleeting moments between Akilla and Faye.
Despite a palpable energy between them, the film’s compact running time does not provide the necessary room to truly explore Faye or her chemistry with Akilla. The same can be said for Sheppard’s Garrison Army crew who are treated as unseen boogeymen for most of the film. Of course, when dealing with a story that takes place over the course of just a few hours, there are bound to be some underdeveloped characters scattered throughout.
Even with these small quibbles, Akilla’s Escape remains a tense and thought-provoking examination of generational violence. One that is lifted by a colour palette that slyly drenches sections of Toronto in the various colours of the Jamaican flag. Officer ensures that not a single frame is wasted as everything from the colour palette to the books on Akilla’s desk serve a purpose. All in all, Akilla’s Escape is a richly layered neo-noir that packs a thrilling punch.