Akilla’s Escape is an admirable modern day morality play, but also a slight misstep from Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer. There’s plenty to like in this multigenerational gangland saga, and like all of Officer’s previous, socially responsible films, the message is resounding and on point. It suffers, however, from feeling like two separate, awkwardly interlocking stories where one is vastly more resounding than the other.
Akilla Brown (Saul Williams, who also worked on the film’s lovely score with Robert “3D” Del Naja of Massive Attack while delivering an effortlessly cool leading performance) is a 40-year old former gang member who came to Toronto via the streets of New York City. Pushed into gang life by his criminally and politically connected father (a strong performance from Ronnie Rowe Jr.), Akilla has since put his violent days behind him. Today, he’s an independent contractor of sorts working for an off the books weed dispensary network that’s caught between being a legal and illegal operation. One fateful night, a place where he’s due to make a drop and pick up is hit by a Jamaican gang with ties to his former childhood allegiances. In the melee following the hit, a young man named Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwna) is left behind by the gang. Akilla uses Sheppard as a means to find the missing product and cash, while hopefully talking the young man out of making the same mistakes he made as a youth.
Akilla’s Escape balances the complicated historical ties between gangs and politics in Jamaican culture to great effect, and Officer and co-writer Wendy Motion Brathwaite have a lot of intelligent commentary between the margins about how the fallacy of the war on drugs and the concept of “legal weed” are insidiously intertwined. But where the film falters is in its unbalanced and curiously tension free structure.
Whenever the film cuts back to Akilla’s younger days in New York (where he’s played by Mpumlwna, in an impressionable double turn), Officer’s film is far more interesting and captivating. That would make an exemplary film on its own, but whenever Officer goes back to the older version of the character trying to save his hide across one crazy night, Akilla’s Escape is frustratingly lacking in urgency, tension, and suspense. It’s a stylish and gorgeous film to look at, but one where the present day plot seems to have had all of its rougher edges sanded away. The parts that work are great, and it moralizes without being preachy, but there’s too much of Akilla’s Escape that doesn’t hit as hard as it should.
Akilla’s Escape screens as part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, September 12 at 9:00 pm at West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place and Sunday, September 13 at 9:15pm inside TIFF Bell Lightbox. It is available to stream at home for a limited time starting at 6:00 pm on Tuesday, September 15 via Bell Digital Cinema. All online screenings at TIFF 2020 are geolocked to Canada. As always, if seeing a movie in a cinema, please take all proper precautions. Practice social distancing, wear a mask, and don’t go out if you are feeling under the weather.