There is a palpable sense of exhaustion and an air of dread over nearly every scene in Akilla’s Escape. It’s no wonder that despite the legalization of marijuana in Canada, Toronto-based drug dealer Akilla Brown is desperately trying to leave the trade. After all, in the film’s first thirty minutes, Brown has watched as a man is hacked to death before his eyes, was held at gunpoint, and was forced to knock out said gunman with a shocking act of quick-thinking. Meanwhile, his decision to exit the dealer life has drawn consternation from his colleagues. And he still has to break the news to “The Greek”––who, we can infer, is most likely not going to be happy. Oh, and Akilla must also step in to save the adolescent gunman’s life before he is suffocated to death by one of the Greek’s henchmen.
It’s not an easy night, to put it mildly. And, as Akilla’s Escape makes brutally clear, not an easy life, either. This tense and complex film from Canadian-British filmmaker Charles Officer is grim but electrifying, shot with style to spare and full of the sort of lived-in details that make a character-driven crime drama believable. Above all else, it has the stand-out performance of poet, rapper, and actor Saul Williams as Akilla. Williams has long been one of the most enigmatic, fascinating performers in modern pop culture. He gave a tremendous, award-worthy lead performance in 1998’s Slam (a film highly deserving of some renewed attention), and has collaborated musically with everyone from Nas and KRS-One to Allen Ginsberg and Trent Reznor.
Williams was electric in Slam, and he is even more compelling in Akilla’s Escape. After opening credits peppered with archival footage of Jamaica and old newspaper headlines screaming “Ganja Law,” the film introduces us to a teenage Akilla. He is in police custody, answering questions whose meaning becomes clear later. The film alternates between young Akilla Brown in 1995 and the adult Akilla of 2020. The latter is played by Williams, wearing a face that has seen its share of violence. These experiences have certainly influenced his current direction; while Colm Feore’s perfectionist pot farmer sees opportunities in Canada just beginning, Akilla wants to shut the operation down. “It’s a firestorm out there,” he explains.
That very night, things get worse, as a dropoff that Akilla expected to be uneventful turns into a robbery and bloodbath. He takes action in a sudden, powerful manner, but as a result is left to take with him one of the would-be robbers––a quiet, somber teenager––and determine what to do next. As Akilla navigates a minefield involving the young gunman, the Greek (Theresa Tova) and her crew, and the gunman’s cohorts, he also flashes back to his own youth. His father was a leader of a crime organization called the Garrison Army. He was also a temperamental abuser who repeatedly beat Akilla’s mother. The eventual result of all this tension put Akilla in a situation similar to the teenager he saved from the robbery. “I remember a resourceful boy … what’s happening to him?” says the Greek in a scene expertly crafted by Officer and co-writer Wendy Motion Brathwaite. “Boys grow up,” Akilla replies.
Officer has a track record of acclaimed documentary and television work, and Akilla cements his reputation as a filmmaker to watch. It is an extraordinarily nuanced film, culminating in an intense but thoughtful conclusion. Through it all, Williams is a magnetic presence. He is also responsible for one of the film’s other feats: its score, composed with Massive Attack member 3D (a.k.a. Robert Del Naja). The music is subdued but intoxicating; the drum-based rumble during the final encounter provides a mesmerizing accompaniment to the action. This is some of 3D’s finest work since Massive Attack’s 2005 soundtrack to Danny the Dog/Unleashed, and it is also a further reminder––not that it was needed––of Williams’ truly diverse talents.
Admittedly, the plot of Akilla’s Escape hits some very familiar beats; the ending calls to mind Carlito’s Way, for example. And the trope of a street smart veteran attempting to save the life of a young man before it is too late is certainly an over-done concept. But what it lacks in surprises, Akilla more than makes up for with visual flare and thematic energy. And, of course, it has Saul Williams, who deserves major praise for a performance that never hits a wrong note.
Akilla’s Escape screened at Toronto International Film Festival.