Akilla’s Escape follows one night in the life of Akilla Brown (Saul Williams), a 40-year old drug trader who has decided that it’s time to get out of the game. Out on a routine hand-off, he is suddenly caught in the middle of a violent robbery. When he discovers that one of his attackers is , a fifteen-year-old Jamaican boy named Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), he realizes that the young man is a member of the same criminal organization that he fell into himself as a child. As he attempts to help the him, Akilla must also confront his own upbringing as a youth (Mpumlwana again) in order to chart a new path for them both.
Written and directed by Charles Officer, Escape is a haunting experience that sits with you long after the film is over. Featuring bleeding colours and pulsating soundtrack, Escape visually creates two worlds and then blurs one into the next, highlighting the challenges of ever truly escaping the darkness entirely. Star Saul Williams—who also collaborated on the soundtrack with Massive Attack’s 3D—absolutely smolders onscreen as the elder Akilla, imbuing his character with confidence and humility. Not to be outdone, Mpumlwana is absolutely stunning as both the terrified Sheppard and the increasingly rage-fueled young Akilla. As a result of the film’s stellar cast and solid visuals, Akilla’s Escape is a gritty and visceral piece that serves as a tragic reminder of how difficult it can be to break free from our past yet Akilla’s journey also carries within it an admirable strength of character that feels hopeful.
This is more than a film about gang life.
This is a film with soul.
As he grapples with his own inner demons, Akilla’s journey is an example of what happens when our past collides with our present. Attempting to break the cyclical nature of violence and poverty, Akilla lives in a world that refuses to give him up. Ready to sell his profitable marijuana business, he believes the time is right to walk away, even if his business partners disagree. When he encounters Sheppard, Akilla’s personal journey feels as though it has come full circle. His desire to rescue the young man serves as both potential freedom for a youth heading down a dark path and redemption for his own lost childhood. (It’s worth noting here that Officer’s decision to cast the young Mpumlwana in both roles further highlights the fact that the elder Akilla sees himself in the young man.)
In many ways, Akilla’s father, Clinton (Ronnie Rowe), may be the subtle central figure of the film. Broken by his own childhood of violence, Clinton is abusive and filled with rage, passing on terrifying words of ‘wisdom’ to his young son. (“War is a matter of vital importance for the province of life,” he warns a wide-eyed Akilla.) Now grown himself, Akilla finds the words of his father ring in his ears, even as he kicks against them. Whereas Clinton pushed him towards violence, Akilla understands that hope lies beyond the barrel of a gun. For Akilla, his experience with Sheppard creates an opportunity to break the cycle and help someone take a new path, even as he carries his own scars with him.
As the credits roll, there is an intrinsic sadness within Akilla’s Escape that lingers. Though the film offers hope to its characters, this is a piece that shows the tragedy of generational pain and its affect on the future. As such, though Akilla’s past may be something he wishes he could forget, this is definitely a story worth remembering.
Akilla’s Escape is currently streaming on the TIFF Bell Digital Theatre as part of the Planet Africa series during the Toronto International Film Festival.
To hear our conversation with Saul Williams, Thamela Mpumlwana, Donisha Prendergast, click here.