After a lifetime spent swimming in the cesspool of Jamaica and Toronto’s criminal underworld, 40-year-old drug dealer Akilla Brown (Saul Williams) reckons it’s time to move on, only to end up in a ‘one-last-job’ scenario with an unlikely young accomplice.
Needless to say – and firmly in keeping with the rules of gangland genre fare – getting out is not going to be an easy task. And that’s even before Akilla is caught in a violent bank robbery that ends with him capturing one of his assailants. That, beneath the mask, the robber turns out to be a baby-faced, 15-year-old called Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana) only complicates the scenario.
Together, Akilla and Sheppard embark on a series of journeys around Toronto to reclaim Akilla’s stolen goods, each with the awkwardness of a drive home after a bad parent-teacher meeting. Their uneasy dynamic offers a very literal representation of the cycle of generational violence and its unflinching destruction of the innocence of Black youth.
And in case this is lost on the audience, the film’s casting of Mpumlwana as both Sheppard and the young Akilla in its many flashback scenes drives home the parallels. It’s a heavy-handed device that actually works pretty well.
Akilla’s Escape races out the gates to the sound of Bob Marley’s iconic 1977 hit ‘Punky Reggae Party’ and an opening sequence that blasts through Jamaica’s complicated post-colonialist history, spliced together with stylish black-and-white clips of Williams’s uninhibited skanking. But elsewhere, director Charles Officer’s decision to hop between timelines backfires by teasing a potentially more interesting film altogether, set in Akilla’s vibrant, violence past.
It’s an uneven puzzle: eye-catching but not entirely convincing when put together
The cerebral Williams brings real nuance to his character, showing how Akilla’s sense of morality and frustration with the hypocrisy of the system cuts him off from one potential avenue of salvation. He won’t join the government-run cannabis industry, because the same administration imposes life sentences on marginalised people involved in the same business.
But the screenplay offers limited room for character development – Akilla arrives pretty much fully formed – and what we’re left with is an uneven puzzle, eye-catching in pieces but not entirely convincing when put together.
In UK cinemas Aug 26.