Sing Sing
Photograph: Black Bear Pictures
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Sing Sing

4 out of 5 stars

Colman Domingo shines in this love letter to uncaged male vulnerability


Time Out says

If prison cells are built to contain the most reprehensible parts of human nature, is it a stretch to believe that they could contain joy too? The evidence is scattered throughout co-writers Greg Kwedar and Clint Bentley’s (Jockey) compassionate, real-life-inspired window into incarceration. Joy isn’t just plausible here, it’s undeniable.

As fans of old-school Hollywood gangster flicks will know, New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility is one of America’s most notorious maximum-security prisons. But behind its scarred walls, blaring sirens and courtyard scuffles is an unexpected soft side known as the real-life Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) programme, a space for inmates to connect with their emotions via theatrical and artistic expression. (Kwedar and Bentley both worked as volunteers on the programme, and the majority of the film’s cast are RTA alumni with equity in the production.)

Alongside teaching artist Brent Buell (Sound of Metal’s Paul Raci), RTA founder John ‘Divine G’ Whitfield (Rustin’s Colman Domingo) has the programme’s members embracing the escapism of creativity, even with his own wrongful conviction hearing looming large.

Joy isn’t just plausible here, it’s undeniable

However, as Sing Sing neatly demonstrates, make-believe is trickier for some. Hot-headed newcomer Clarence ‘Divine Eye’ Maclin (playing himself) is reluctant to embrace the group’s unconventional methods, despite being cast as the lead in their upcoming play. He’s served 20 years behind bars and, in his own words, has only ever played the role of a gangster. It’s a role familiar to many in the room, but society’s labels hold no weight in the RTA. ‘Brother we’re here to become human again, to put on nice clothes and dance around and enjoy things that are not in our reality,’ says one of the group’s members in a moment of vulnerability. 

There’s a meditative, rough-around-the-edges quality to the filmmaking that mirrors the hazy elasticity of time spent in prison. In some scenes the shots are out of focus; in others, the camera is so close to the action that it feels the scene only cuts to stop the lens from fogging up – particularly in the scenes where Divine G and Divine Eye are working through the tension of their burgeoning friendship. 

Sing Sing’s most affecting quality is its commitment to reality over shock value. With Domingo masterfully anchoring the ensemble, it’s never bogged down by the specifics of the men’s crimes. They don’t judge each other, so why should we? Who we’re told we are is far less important than who we know ourselves to be, the film is telling us. Some days that might just be Peter Pan or King Lear. 

In US theaters Jul 12 and UK cinemas Aug 30, 2024.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Greg Kwedar
  • Screenwriter:Greg Kwedar, Clint Bentley
  • Cast:
    • Paul Raci
    • Colman Domingo
    • Clarence Maclin
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