TIFF 2020: Akilla’s Escape

When a life shaped by manipulation and violence is all you know, it can be difficult to change patterns as an adult. In Charles Officer’s Akilla’s Escape, we see one man surrounded by danger determined to live by honor and kindness, regardless of the cost.

Akilla (Saul Williams) runs a marijuana grow-op in Toronto. He wants to get out of the game because of legalization, among other concerns, despite his colleagues’ protests and the Greek mobsters who oversee the operation. When Akilla walks in on a robbery at the grow-op, he fights back and knocks out a young, inexperienced teen Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), who held a gun on him while the other thieves escape with a large sum of money. Akilla has to find the stolen money, but he sees himself in this kid, growing up as a drug courier for his Jamaican father, Clinton (Ronnie Row), the head of a notorious gang in New York in the 90s. He is torn and wants to help Sheppard by keeping him out of harm’s way, but things escalate, and Akilla must make some difficult choices.

Written by Officer and Toronto poet, playwright, and emcee Wendy “Motion” Brathwaite, this moody, quiet crime drama is loaded with intelligence and sensitivity so often missing with this subject matter, infusing humanity that cancels the caricature of a drug dealer. The opening montage sheds light on the tumultuous history of Jamaica’s politics and the origins of Akilla’s father’s tough moral code. It highlights not only his influence on Akilla but the background of someone who chooses crime as rebellion.

Williams brings pathos to his role as flashbacks show how his childhood trauma shaped his own moral code. Mpumlwana, who does double duty as a young Akilla, is brilliant with the range of emotions he must access. We see him witness his mother played by Olunike Adeliyi, suffer through his father’s abuse, Akilla’s reluctant involvement in criminal activity, and how forging his way in a violent environment shapes the smart, sensitive man he becomes.

Image courtesy of TIFF

The soundtrack and scoring created by Williams and Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) are excellent. I love the use of color in the film to note flashbacks and present-day action, and the cinematography by Maya Bankovic is simply stunning, especially during the final act, which will undoubtedly shatter your heart.

Officer and Brathwaite bring Black men and boys’ trauma to light with skill and finesse to make Akilla’s Escape a guaranteed classic in Canadian Black cinema.

Check out the Toronto International Film Festival from Sep 10-20, 2020.

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