TIFF20 REVIEW: Akilla’s Escape [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: 2020 (Canada)
    Studio: Canesugar Filmworks
    Director(s): Charles Officer
    Writer(s): Charles Officer & Wendy Motion Brathwaite / Charles Officer (story)

The bigger you get, the less you touch.

To be born a prince is sometimes to be born a slave. Your birthright becomes your fate and there can be no deviation from it. Your duty is as much a part of your identity as your name because it’s the filter through which everyone sees you. And that goes for good and ill—for kingdoms and cartels. It’s why a general in the Jamaican drug trade’s Garrison Army out of New York City (Ronnie Rowe‘s Clinton Brown) named his son Akilla (Thamela Mpumlwana) after the Greek warrior Achilles. A student of Homer and Sun Tzu, Brown sought to raise his son in his mold as a successor built from strength of body and mind. But embracing those two traits also inherently introduces a desire to be free.

The question becomes: “How?” How can Akilla exit that proverbial shadow when his father’s right-hand man (Shomari Downer‘s literal Shadow) is always watching? How can he use what he’s learned to put this life behind him when he was born into it as a conscript? How can he save his mother (Olunike Adeliyi‘s Thetis) and become greater than his abusive father like the mythological prophesy predicted in the tales of Zeus? This is his struggle as a teenager. It’s his burden as a son. Once director Charles Officer and co-writer Wendy Motion Brathwaite push forward from the boy’s American reckoning in 1995 to the man he’s become in Toronto, Ontario circa 2020 (Saul Williams), however, we learn that he will succeed. But that aforementioned question of “How?” remains.

Akilla’s Escape therefore travels between past and present as the latter version of its titular lead peers through a mirror back onto his former self. A man who’s adapted to the changing times as a means of survival ever since leaving New York, he’s about to transform yet again from marijuana purveyor (grown by Colm Feore and protected by Brandon Oakes) to whatever life brings. Before he can tell the crime boss bankrolling him (Theresa Tova‘s “The Greek”)—this time voluntarily as a freelancer unlike the arrangement dictated by his father—about this change of plans, however, the past comes flooding back courtesy of a shotgun barrel held by a young boy (Sheppard, also played by Mpumlwana) stuck in a similarly oppressive cycle of violence as he was.

Both pathways begin to alternate towards their endgames. One commences with young Akilla being interrogated by the police about his father’s death and the other with Sheppard’s criminal associates robbing “The Greek’s” money and the older Akilla’s product with machetes raised. Both paralleled threads have an innocent boy stuck in the middle weighing his options as far as where to place his allegiance. Akilla chose his mother. Sheppard—living with his aunt (Donisha Rita Claire Prendergast‘s Faye) after the murder of his own in Jamaica—chose opportunity. So while the former had to use his strength to preserve love, the latter is going to need to remember love in order to stay strong. Luckily for Sheppard, Akilla knows first-hand that a way back into the light does exist.

How did Akilla find that truth almost three decades ago? How will he get Sheppard to believe in its existence now? These questions are why we watch. Officer’s film is thus as much a coming of age tale under great duress as it is the story of a man who refuses to succumb to the tragic ends power creates in its quest for prosperity. It’s about finding the line between using the teachings from The Art of War with violence in your heart and without. Akilla is still his father’s son after all. He can still cause pain in efforts towards protecting himself and others (just ask “The Greek’s” muscle, Bruce Ramsay‘s Jimmy). But he doesn’t need it to assert strength. Respect always fosters stronger bonds than fear.

With Greek mythology used as an overt backdrop and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son providing an unspoken avenue towards finding enlightenment within it, Akilla’s Escape proves to be a very contemplative drama asking a lot more of its audience than the usual drug-world adjacent thriller. You can feel the energy that comes from co-writer Motion being a poet, playwright, and MC and lead actor Williams being one of our best known and acclaimed slam poets (who also collaborated with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja on the soundtrack). The resulting propulsive movement forward with emotionally introspective narrative impulses beyond violent action lends a unique quality to the whole that helps it standout amongst its genre contemporaries. It carries the potential for hope despite its inevitable tragedy.

And that’s a crucial lesson to learn—one that you sometimes must educate yourself into understanding. To look at the life Akilla was born into and witness the many times he was thrust into a situation that threatened his existence is to wonder “How?” once again. How did he find the upper hand with violent men? How was he able to diffuse the fear they wielded in order to navigate terrain his father ruled with even greater terror? But you also have to include a couple “Whys?” too. Why did the men who had him in their possession let him go? Was it sympathy? Guilt? Or was it because they saw his power was built for another use far beyond the life in which they themselves were trapped?

As the number of malicious men like his father increases each day, Akilla becomes a de facto savior of the souls they prey upon. He won’t stop you from joining that life if it’s what you want, but he also won’t let you corrupt someone else who doesn’t. Akilla was lucky to have been born with the strength to choose and yet unlucky to have experienced all that he did in order to cultivate it. Sheppard conversely needs guidance to know an alternative is possible. He needs to read the books that prepared Akilla for an escape that’s much more methodically planned and executed than its seemingly random circumstances initially presented. Eventually we also realize his survival held purpose beyond himself. He survived so he could save another.

courtesy of TIFF

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