Colman Domingo in "Sing Sing"
Since the inception of Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a theater program that helps prisoners expand their capabilities through creative workshops, the percentage of prisoners re-incarcerated in the U.S. prison system has fallen. Over the course of 25 years, less than 3% of people returned to prison, compared to the 60% national rate. Incarcerated people are given life-changing opportunities to explore their creativity and nourish their vulnerability through the arts. This message of restoration reverberates in each and every frame of “Sing Sing,” a remarkable true story directed and co-written by Greg Kwedar. Based on a real RTA program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, the docudrama vocalizes an abundance of talent to be found within prison walls. It’s an uplifting experience bursting with heart and soul. It speaks to how theater can heal, and how the power of a safe space can stitch communities together for life. Starring Colman Domingo, Paul Raci, and an ensemble of formerly incarcerated people as well as RTA alumni, “Sing Sing” shines as one of the must-see films of the year.
Behind the walls of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a group of prisoners sit around a circle deciding on a new play to perform. Their production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had gone well, and theater director Brent (Paul Raci) motivates everyone to think of a new story to work with. The group usually looks to mentor and actor Divine G (Colman Domingo) for ideas, and he has one ready to go – a story of overzealous ambition that follows a record player who gets cheated out of his record store. Everyone seems onboard, until the group’s new member Divine Eye (Clarence Maclin) suggests they shake things up and do a comedy. The notion sets Divine G into slight hesitancy. “Dying is easy…comedy is hard,” he poses. But Brent welcomes the change of tone, and soon the entire group brainstorms an eclectic mishmash of ideas – from sprinkles of time travel and Ancient Egypt, to a Hamlet soliloquy and a very amusing Freddy Krueger appearance. Brent cobbles the ideas together into a script called “Breakin’ The Mummy’s Code,” which becomes the troupe’s new production.
Inspired by John H. Richardson’s 2005 Esquire article “The Sing Sing Follies,” about a time-traveling comedy (Brent Buell’s “Breakin’ The Mummy’s Code”) that a real group of prisoners performed, the film recounts the play from its inception to opening night. Greg Kwedar’s direction takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to the theater troupe. He immerses the viewer into their environment, giving a front row seat to the inner workings of their energetic stage production. By focusing on what the acting process looks like for the troupe, Kwedar shines a light on how their personal characteristics help inform their sense of playfulness and artistic expression. The viewer gets to know each actor in their creative element and watch them adapt on the fly. The film’s screenplay – co-written by Kwedar, Brent Buell, and Clint Bentley – is structured in a neat way that shows the benefits of the RTA program in action, and lets raw talent soar to exciting places.
Between “Rustin,” “The Color Purple,” “Drive-Away Dolls,” and now “Sing Sing,” Colman Domingo is about to have an incredible year in film. The actor’s astounding performance in “Sing Sing” is the finest of his career thus far. Playing Divine G, mentor and organizer of the prison’s theater program, Domingo charts an emotional journey of artistic expression while navigating the realities of the U.S. prison system. As he engages in creative group exercises and aids in putting the production together, he also prepares for his own clemency hearing. The character of Divine G shines further light on how broken and despairing the system is. While pouring his all into theater, preserving the restorative and transformative qualities of the program, the reality of his own experiences sinks in: that in the face of humanity and dignity, lies the inescapability of injustice and stereotype. Domingo’s charming screen presence and insightful character work bring compelling truth to the screen.
Among the wonderful cast is Paul Raci, whose fantastic performance in 2020’s “Sound of Metal” has thankfully led to more opportunities such as this one. Raci’s character is based on Brent Bruell, the real theater programming director whose work at Sing Sing has transformed lives. Bringing humanity into a system that is built to destroy it, Raci embodies the character’s intention and spirit. His performance feels so emotionally present, immersed in his surroundings as he shares genuine reactions with the prisoners. The ensemble cast of “Sing Sing” is nearly full of real people playing a version of themselves, from formerly incarcerated actors to various alumni of the RTA program. Their open-hearted performances are an absolute joy to watch. Just seeing them interact, whether during a performance or while expressing a personal moment, gives a candid first-look at how impactful the theater workshop is. It’s incredibly moving to watch the program’s restorative power, plus the creation of a safe space where compassion is shared, people can be vulnerable, and true friendships can form.
One of the most resonating dynamics of the film is the bond that deepens between Domingo and Maclin. Their characters initially don’t see eye to eye on a creative level. Divine G has a preference of what material to explore, and Divine Eye’s push for the troupe to do a comedic play presents a challenge. As well, Divine G loses out on the part he wanted to play when Divine Eye goes for Hamlet, ironically the most dramatic role of the entire production. The two characters have a bit of tension, which the film explores in the most organic of ways that simply lets it play out. Through the act of performing together, and in learning about each other’s prison sentences, their deepened bond builds toward a heartfelt final moment.
In addition to the cast, the crew of “Sing Sing” reinforce the film’s dynamic energy from a technical standpoint. Pat Scola’s cinematography finds the warmth in moments of reflection and creativity. The detailed production design by Ruta Kiskyte adds to the film’s stage play environment. The editing by Parker Laramie, despite a bit of meandering during the final act, maintains a concise level of pacing overall. As well, the film features a beautiful score composed by Bryce Dessner (of The National).
On more than one occasion, Paul Raci’s character Brent goes around the troupe circle and asks everyone to close their eyes. During one instance, he asks the actors to remember a moment that made them happy and let that memory wash over them. In another, he prompts them to think about an old friend and imagine what that person might look like now. The actors’ responses on both occasions, particularly when it comes to happy memories, are key parts of what makes this film so special. The tenderness of “Sing Sing” derives from so many beautiful places, most of all its wonderful ensemble, to which the film sings its tune. From their personalities and idiosyncrasies, inner conflicts and harsh realities, to their hopes and dreams, they define the story. Told with incredible energy and vulnerability, “Sing Sing” is an emotional piece of cinema that challenges a broken system and finds a safe space through the transformative power of art.