“We are here to become human again.” This is the mantra of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program, founded in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a prison just north of New York City, and the subject of Greg Kwedar’s emotionally restorative new feature. While led by a stellar Colman Domingo with an equally great supporting turn from Paul Raci, the majority of Sing Sing‘s cast knows the program all too well, either as alumni or currently going through it. That authenticity in casting carries through every frame and every line, as if Kwedar has walked these halls and been in these rooms, an observer to the intimate conversations he’s scripted alongside Clint Bentley.
Set in 2005, when the film’s inspiration from John H. Richardson’s Esquire article “The Sing Sing Follies” was published, the film follows a theater troupe attempting to mount their latest production, an ambitious (semi-)original work involving Egyptians, pirates, gladiators, Hamlet, and even Freddy Krueger. It would be quite an undertaking for the most experienced crew of a lavish Broadway musical, but those putting on this production have almost no budget to speak of. As prisoners voluntarily taking part in the program, some have a true passion for the arts while others are more skeptical, putting their guard up against this process of emotionally transparent creation.
Reminiscent of Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ piercing Folsom Prison therapy program documentary The Work, Sing Sing is most interested in the rediscovering of a soul’s humanity after years of presenting a veneer of socially conditioned callousness perpetrated by both the system that was the reason for incarceration in the first place and an even more grueling code of kill-or-be-killed living in jail. Best exemplifying this transformation is Divine Eye (Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, in a breakthrough performance) whom program founder Divine G (Domingo) cautiously approaches in the yard after observing some of the best acting he’s ever seen when demanding repayment for a drug deal gone wrong. Divine Eye reluctantly appears at an initial session and much of the film’s most poignant dramatic tension is found in his blossoming personality and newfound creative freedom as an outlet for decades of pain. Leading the group as theater director Brent, Raci gives another grounded turn following Sound of Metal as a man whose seemingly seen his fair share of pain and now is intently focused on bringing the best out of everyone he has the pleasure of guiding.
Shot by cinematographer Pat Scola (Pig) with a warmth that never feels exploitative, there’s a sense of life brimming in each frame of Sing Sing. The National’s Bryce Dessner provides a moving score that works best in its most subtle moments. As they did in their previous feature Jockey, Kwedar and Bentley give the sense they know this world in and out and stay narrowly focused on their subjects and their artistic pursuits, never leaving the confines of the prison. While Sing Sing is more about the creative process, they also acutely show the fallacies of a system meant to cut one down no matter their standing. When Divine G is up for parole, his experience in this theater program isn’t met with commendation, but rather a question if his earnest bid for clemency is––considering he’s an experienced stage performer––all an act. As throughout the film, Domingo perfectly showcases this pent-up frustration through cracks in the otherwise steady positivity, pride, and encouragement he brings in each session with the troupe. “I don’t write comedies. I write satires,” Divine G humorously tells the group when deciding their next play.
As Sing Sing gets closer to opening night, Kwedar is smartly less focused on the end results––a wisely avoided, expected trope that so many other films about the artistic method fall prey to––and more about how this journey affects each of those involved. For some it’s an outlet to exercise creative desires they were forced to give up due to their prison sentence; for others it’s about forging a human connection they thought was all but lost. Although some of these men may get the opportunity of freedom, every six months the rest will do it again, the cycle starting anew. Beautifully showing the importance of healing through art, Sing Sing skirts the treacly traps of a feel-good crowd-pleaser by providing a detailed, authentic roadmap for restoring a life burdened by trauma.
Sing Sing premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by A24.