Akilla’s Escape is a profound, tender reworking of the crime thriller

  • Akilla’s Escape
  • Directed by Charles Officer
  • Written by Charles Officer and Wendy Motion Brathwaite
  • Starring Saul Williams, Thamela Mpumlwana and Colm Feore
  • Classification N/A; 90 minutes

If you’re paying close attention early on in Akilla’s Escape, you’ll start to pick up on hints that foreshadow the way the film about a Toronto drug runner’s very long, very dangerous night might unfold. Your predictions may be off – but, once you know what to look for, scenes begin to explode with clues from ancient Greek mythology and Black radical texts. It is an impressive undertaking, and a testament to the astounding visionary scope of this work by acclaimed Canadian director Charles Officer – a project that revamps the noir genre to tell a profoundly human story of individual agency amidst community violence with compassion, intuition, and painstaking specificity.

Pacing is key here, and the film unravels with a sharp angularity and itchy tension reminiscent of the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems, Good Time). As the protagonist, Akilla (Saul Williams), negotiates his retirement from organized crime, a high-stakes encounter forces him to directly face his upbringing as the son – and protégé – of a Jamaican drug kingpin. He’s left to grapple with the trauma that lives urgently below the surface, at times clouding his judgment and compelling him to absorb risk on behalf of others.

As the opening credits roll, Officer sets the stage with crucial historical context. Rousing archival footage of Jamaica’s dense social and political history is spliced between shots of Akilla dancing, breathlessly and freely, to an audience of none. It is an important moment of stage-setting designed to remind viewers that bursts of political action never really end. Instead, they take hold in the memories, ambitions, and actions of diasporas that fan out across the globe.

This bird’s-eye vantage point enables Officer to complicate narratives of gang violence. He positions relentless street-level warfare as the product of collective, intergenerational trauma, and frames local conflict as being connected to the continuum of consistent political upheaval.

He does this by shifting between the past and the present. He uses time, location, and retrospect to show why cycles of violence are so difficult to break. On the night Akilla arrives at a straightforward hand-off, things go sideways when he finds himself in the middle of a robbery. Faced with deciding whether to choose his business dealings over mercy, he is overcome with personal flashbacks as he attempts to complete the transaction while also protecting a teenager from crossfire between rival Toronto gangs.

Stylistically, Officer’s practiced eye is unmistakable in its focus on small details. A subliminal storyline is revealed when a flickering facial contortion reveals uncertainty behind the bravado, while a climactic scene involving an armed standoff is soundtracked by Silver Mt. Zion and disrupted to slide in a quote from Homer’s Iliad.

The film gives life-sized moments robust cinematic treatment. It illuminates bedrooms and bars with spectacular neon hues, represents a grainy memory with warm sepia, gazes out at Toronto’s bleary-eyed skyline from a frosted window, and zeroes in on a drop of blood unfurling in water as a wound is dressed. It is all in service of giving character to environments often seen as bleak and inhospitable. Amidst scenes of tense hand-to-hand combat and edge-of-your-seat moral dilemmas, a question is posed: How do you escape your circumstances when you can’t disentangle whom you’ve grown up to become from the experiences that built you from scratch?

The answer arrives from the film’s most alluring casting choice. Although Williams shines as the wise, patient, and courageous lead, 19-year-old Thamela Mpumlwana is the movie’s propulsive beating heart. Tasked with playing both a younger Akilla and an “urban child soldier” whom an older Akilla makes his responsibility, Mpumlwana deftly and with striking self-confidence conveys the sincere decision-making capabilities of a teenager. His generous emotional character-building elevates Akilla from a guileless hero to a richly textured one.

A layered coming-of-age story emerges that extends beyond the individual to examine the dynamics of the community as a whole, as well as a system of “hustle and grind” capitalism that transforms people into currency, devalues Black life, and forces individuals to enact care at any cost.

Akilla’s Escape recasts the monolithic narrative of gang involvement as one that rejects a trope of Black peril in order to tell a multi-dimensional story of resilience – one where keen strategists are developed through unsolvable situations, where the enduring love of Black mothers demonstrates what it means to walk into the line of fire and where, amidst abject tumult, moments of tenderness and triumph persist against all odds.

Akilla’s Escape is available digitally starting June 15 including Apple TV/iTunes and the digital TIFF Lightbox.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, recommended works will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians to be adapted into limited TV series

The award-winning novel has been acquired by Prospero Pictures and Shannon Masters

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good has been optioned by Prospero Pictures to be adapted as a limited series. 

Shannon Masters, who is of Cree Métis and Ukrainian descent, will serve as writer and showrunner. She has previously worked on series such as CBC’s Coroner and Burden of Truth.

Five Little Indians chronicles the quest of five residential school survivors to come to terms with their past and find a way forward. Released after years of detention, five teens find their way to the seedy and foreign world of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, where they cling together, striving to find a place of safety and belonging in a world that doesn’t want them.

Five Little Indians won the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award and the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.

Good is a writer, retired lawyer and a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Her poems, short stories and essays have been published in magazines and anthologies across Canada. She now lives in southern British Columbia. Five Little Indians is her first novel.

“Michelle Good’s beautiful novel pulled me in and held me close until the last word. It’s an incredible honour to work with Michelle to transition her book to the screen,” Masters said in a press statement.

Good said she hopes the adaptation will make the story accessible to more people.

“My son was not a reader; he had terrible dyslexia. It just broke my heart that he’d rather poke himself in the eye with a needle than read a book, because it was so challenging,” she told Shelagh Rogers while recording an interview for The Next Chapter.

“There are lots of people that, for whatever reasons, aren’t necessarily avid readers but would love to hear or experience the story. So this opportunity to have it expand to a broader audience, is just very exciting.”

Martin Katz and Karen Wookey will be executive producers of the series, alongside Masters.

Katz is founder and president of Prospero Pictures. His credits include Hotel Rwanda, and over two decades producing films with celebrated director David Cronenberg, including Maps to the Stars.

“Karen and I are humbled by the opportunity to work with Shannon to bring Michelle’s significant and timely work to the screen. Her story can help us to remember and come to terms with the historical and ongoing injustices of our society,” said Katz in a statement.

David Cronenberg Producer Martin Katz to Adapt ‘Five Little Indians’ Indigenous Trauma Novel (Exclusive)

Cree Metis writer Shannon Masters will write and showrun the limited-series take on Michelle Good’s novel about the enduring ordeal faced by five survivors of Canada’s deadly residential schools system.

Following the real-life, gruesome discovery of 215 Indigenous children in a mass grave at a church-run residential school in British Columbia, Prospero Pictures and Cree Metis writer Shannon Masters are set to turn Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians novel into a limited TV series.

Prospero Pictures is the shingle for Martin Katz, who produced David Cronenberg films like Spider, A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, which earned Julianne Moore the best actress Palme d’Or in Cannes. Masters has writing credits for TV series with strong female leads like Coroner, Cardinal and Burden of Truth, and the feature film Empire of Dirt.

Five Little Indians, released by Harper Collins in 2020, follows five survivors of Canada’s Indigenous residential schools system after they endured years of detention, suffering and forced assimilation. “This story must be told in every way we can and with such insight into genocide. I am confident that Prospero Pictures will create a beautiful rendition of the joy, the love and the horror of this story,” Good said in a statement.

The book also portrays survivors finding their way to survival and healing. “Michelle Good’s beautiful novel pulled me in and held me close until the last word. [It was] so stunning I dove straight back in to read it again. It’s an incredible honor to work with Michelle to transition this book to the screen,” Masters said in her own statement.

The Canadian novel option deal comes in the wake of the discovery of unmarked graves for 215 Indigenous children forced to attend a former residential school run by the Catholic Church in Kamloops, B.C.

Katz, Karen Wookey and Masters will executive produce the Five Little Indians adaptation. Wookey is a veteran producer of films and TV series, with credits that include Intervention Canada, Vegas Rat Rods and Ice Road Truckers.