In Akilla’s Escape, a hypnotic crime-noir from Jamaican-Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer (Nurse.Fighter.Boy), cycles of violence and oppression collapse into an ominous nightmare loop as one man retiring from a life of crime races to stop a younger man from following a similar path.
The older of the two men, Akilla (multihyphenate Saul Williams, who also did the trip-hop score with Massive Attack’s 3D AKA Robert Del Naja) is a marijuana dealer in modern-day Toronto resolved to leave the business now that pot is legal and the government is muscling in, signaling that it’s time to step away from his grow-op and cash out. But on the eve of Akilla’s retirement, an armed robbery wipes out his supply and a dispensary employee is hacked to death with a machete. In the chaos that follows, Akilla knocks out one thief, a teen named Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), who’s swiftly abandoned by the rest of the crew. Hiding him away, Akilla shields Sheppard from the dispensary’s owners, who want to torture him for information.
Instead, the cooler-headed Akilla heads out alone to track down his stolen loot, even as he grows protective of Sheppard. Simultaneously, Akilla’s Escape follows 15-year-old Akilla in 1995 New York, where his Jamaica-born father (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) heads up a dangerous gang that Akilla’s abused mother (Olunike Adeliyi) is desperate but powerless to stop her son from falling in with. Mpumlwana also plays the younger Akilla which, in conjunction with the film’s flashback-heavy structure, works to collapse the decades and distinctions between its characters. It’s clear that the world-worn, melancholy Akilla sees himself in Sheppard, and Officer’s film shares that perspective, blurring the two characters until both represent distinct stages in a larger cycle of crime, carcerality and consequence.
Officer depicts his criminal underworld as punishing and forlorn, a den suffused with dread and punctuated by moments of brutal violence. Within it, those consequences are often brutally immediate, but they feel spiritual as well. Akilla isn’t operating altruistically to help Sheppard escape the cycles of violence he was raised and has lived within; he senses both their souls are on the line, and that saving Sheppard could be the only path to his own redemption.
Throughout Akilla’s Escape, the weight of history as well as personal legacy hangs heavy in the air. The film’s opening montage, exploring Jamaica’s volatile past, intersperses newspaper clippings and archival footage with a hypnotic sequence of Williams dancing in a warehouse, drawing a portrait of Jamaican culture (particularly the emergence of reggae) as a rebellious movement against forces of colonial violence and political unrest. Set to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Punky Reggae Party,” a celebratory number that the island icon wrote in response to the British punk scene adopting reggae sounds, the montage enriches its own retelling by pointing to the globally influential explosion of music culture Jamaica experienced in tandem with its turmoil.
Reggae’s slow-grooving resilience, and its most prominent practitioners’ use of both militant and spiritual forms of resistance, makes it a natural fit within Officer’s film, which charges its story’s menace with a woozy, neon-bathed surrealism, turning the drug dens and backrooms of Toronto into a metaphorical hell. With soundtrack cuts from ’60s balladeer Jackie Edwards, ’70s roots reggae group The Gladiators and modern EDM duo Zeds Dead, Williams’ choices study the history of Jamaican reggae while mapping its diasporic connections. His collaboration with Del Naja on the score’s skittering, eerily distended synths, meanwhile, underlines the crime-noir elements of the story and lends these reggae selections a warped, almost polluted quality.
But the most intriguing music selection in Akilla’s Escape comes early, as Williams’ older Akilla is introduced by the artist’s own “Skin of a Drum,” off his 2007 record The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! A forceful, industrial tirade of a track elevated by Trent Reznor’s fraught combination of crate drums and violins, its lyrics directly surface Williams’ antagonistic, anguished relationship with his father (“And I can’t become my father / When it’s all been said and done / His completions won’t complete me / I’ve divided me by one”). A logical, if literal fit within Akilla’s Escape, its metatextual inclusion underlines the larger questions of patriarchal oppression that have long haunted and driven Williams’ artistic work (in poetry, music and theater in addition to film).
Through its grim vision of the masculinity Akilla and Sheppard have inherited, toxically tangled in the racialized oppressions of capitalism and criminality they face daily, Akilla’s Escape works to unpack the mythologies young men are sold by their elders. As fathers and sons circle one another, connected and compromised by the threat of violence that has been repeatedly normalized within their communities, the film works within its neo-noir framework to expose that violence as a control tactic, the work of larger systems that want these families dead. Akilla knows that it will be a miracle if Sheppard breaks free of Toronto’s ganglands; he already sees the teenager as a ghost from the past sent to haunt him, a vision of what was once and continues to be lost. There’s no reason to expect a different fate will befall this boy. But Akilla aims to give him a fighting chance.
Akilla’s Escape is a requiem for its protagonist, a man whose life has been defined by his formative traumas and who struggles to avoid paying forward the pain he learned young. But the film’s central, timeline-collapsing gambit pays off by turning Akilla’s Escape into something more sweeping. Through its unification of Akilla and Sheppard’s struggle, the film offers a uniquely powerful visualization of Black men caught in oppressive cycles—and foregrounds the illumination of those cycles, rather than the characters’ individual stories, as the film’s main objective. Akilla’s Escape offers few answers when it comes to ending the generational traumas its characters carry, but the unique force with which it expresses the life-altering weight of such burdens meaningfully moves the conversation around them forward.
Director: Charles Officer
Writer: Charles Officer, Wendy Motion Brathwaite
Stars: Saul Williams, Thamela Mpumlwana, Vic Mensa, Donisha Prendergast, Ronnie Rowe Jr., Olunike Adeliyi, Colm Feore, Bruce Ramsay, Shomari Downer
Release Date: June 11, 2021
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.