The real-life story of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts programme at the infamous Sing Sing Correctional Facility is at the centre of director Greg Kwedar’s affecting and emotional drama, Sing Sing.
Every six months, the members of the prison’s theatre troupe gather to plan and perform a stage play. Divine G (Colman Domingo) is the heart and soul of the group who often turn to him for guidance in their next production. But when the troupe’s new recruit Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin (playing himself) has an idea for a broad-ranging comedy, the men throw out wild ideas encompassing everything from ancient Egypt and pirates to Hamlet and gladiators. When not attending the acting workshops ahead of their latest big production, Colman’s Diving G spends much of his time preparing for his clemency hearing.
A contemplative story about men learning to connect with their emotions, Sing Sing is so much more than the story of a troubled troupe of players mounting a play. With a cast comprised almost entirely of formerly incarcerated actors—who appear here as themselves, the film packs a powerful message into a wholly unique and entertaining story that will have audiences laughing and crying in equal measure.
With a screenplay written by Kwedar and Clint Bentley, and containing a real play written by Divine G and the programme’s theatre director Brent Buell, Sing Sing is all about community and resilience. Anchoring the film is the talented Domingo, who brings a great amount of warmth to his role as he manages to command the screen without ever overshadowing his non-actor co-stars. Maclin too is a joy to watch transform on screen, as he plays a former version of himself. A bold character, so much of this film rests on his shoulders and on those of his fellow inmate actors but under Kwedar’s direction, there is no weak link here.
He opens the film by delivering a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his face filling the screen and setting the literal stage and tone of the film. The group is preparing an original comedy and so there are laughs to be had too. These men know they aren’t performing Shakespeare-quality capital “T” theatre, but merely an escape from day-to-day prison life.
Kwedar keeps his eye trained on the production, leaving what is happening outside the workshop walls behind for a truly immersive experience. Who these men are and what mistakes they may have made is irrelevant. But at the same time, the film doesn’t want the audience to forget where these men reside and pointedly frames conversations outside in the prison yard, with the barbed wire and guard towers ever-present.
Brimming with energy and life, Sing Sing is a joyous, celebratory film whose greatest aim is to spread the message that the industrial prison complex needs radical change and that broken human beings can be made whole again through the arts. A truly original film, Sing Sing is an exceptionally memorable part of the this year’s TIFF lineup.