Toronto International Film Festival 2020: AKILLA’S ESCAPE

Escape is defined as “an act of breaking free from confinement or control”. How does one define, or even understand, breaking free, especially when all they have known is what they want to escape the most? Can we ever change our destiny, or is fate an inescapable vice that we can hold off, but never truly evade its grip? Akilla’s Escape, from writer and director Charles Officer, is an engaging, hypnotizing and influential look at a young man’s journey and his attempt to break away from generational violence and gang life – to live the life of values and morals he sees fit.

Through Akilla’s eyes, both as a 15-year-old boy and as an adult, audiences are given insight into the world he has fought to break free from and the control that life still has on his body, mind, and soul. There is a peaceful nature accompanied by a silent desire and yearning for redemption and a second chance, leaving many in the end to wonder what escape Akilla truly obtains.

The Escape

Akilla’s Escape opens to video-like footage of the fall of British rule in Jamaica and the subsequent political turmoil and gang violence that would follow. Juxtaposed to this imagery are the citizens of Jamaica, dancing and euphoric. There is a sense of community even in the face of Jamaica’s tumultuous past, a unity that is felt no matter the age. In these moments, viewers will truly feel a love for Jamaica, not only through their eyes, but the eyes behind the lens.

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: AKILLA’S ESCAPE
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Though the contrast is starkly thrown into darkness as a man is seen falling, the audience is taken in a blink of an eye to an NYC precinct in 1995. As 15-year-old Akilla (Thamela Mpumlwana) is coaxed to tell his story, viewers are once again thrown ahead: Akilla (Saul Williams) is now a grown man in Toronto, Canada. There is no explanation given, just a time and place. That is until Akilla stumbles on a deadly robbery that threatens not only his whole operation but the future of one young man caught in the perpetual cycle of gang violence.

Saving this young man’s life from The Greek (Theresa Tova), the local syndicate crime boss, and her henchman (Bruce Ramsay), Akilla sees not only an opportunity to correct the errors of the evening, but the chance to save this young man from the life of crime Akilla has faced – the life he tried to escape. As he navigates the evening, Akilla finds the boy is more than the opportunity to break a generational cycle, but also a chance at redemption.

Creating the Escape Route

While Akilla’s Escape will without a doubt captivate audiences alike, many will find it challenging to stay with the film’s first ten minutes. The film’s introduction plays through a majority of Bob Marley‘s “Punky Reggae Party”, a drawn-out launch of the film. Now this alone would not have presented the challenge, yet viewers are again left to watch an older version of Akilla as he works at home before an overly drawn-out car ride to the pot farm he runs. While the remainder of the film moves at a more timely pace for the story it wishes to tell, the beginning here feels as though it were drawn out for filler with the sole purpose of bringing the film to its 90-minute runtime.

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: AKILLA’S ESCAPE
source: Toronto International Film Festival

However, this changes dramatically the moment Akilla walks into the room, discovering the robbery and swiftly changing the film’s tone. In an instant, any uncertainty of the film’s direction is wiped away. From here, the Akilla’s Escape appears to develop a deeper confidence in itself as it progresses. There is a narrative story of the night Akilla tries to make it right for himself and a young boy, but there is also a puzzle to be pieced together of the past surrounding how Akilla got to where he is today. Once the film finds its narrative, the rest flows out with ease.

The film is in no rush to fill in the blanks to tell the story of Akilla’s past life, and the pacing is perfectly timed, almost rhythmic. It is broken down from the moment of the robbery, giving each segment time to unfold before the viewers’ eyes, and elements past and present to be digested. Broken into sections (or exhibits), Akilla’s past lines up with the present he is facing. He is given his moments of redemption, of a second chance, and viewers are thus given the explanations as to why these decisions are so vital and not to be taken lightly.

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: AKILLA’S ESCAPE
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Both past and present are given their equal time to shine, yet so are the characters on screen. Saul Williams as Toronto Akilla shines; his performance is pensive, yet forceful. There is a quiet power that resonates, from the strength of speech, to the confidence of stature – Williams commits to the role he is given. He is further interwoven within the film as his song “Skin of a Drum” accompanies the car ride in the film’s earlier moments. His younger counterpart Mpumlwana matches his strength and resilience, bringing the 15-year-old Akilla to life with skill, dedication, and commitment. After this film, both are definitely ones to watch.

Conclusion: Akilla’s Escape

There is heartbreak as you hear Akilla’s father tell him about the violence his grandfather willfully became a part of, a way of life that was passed down to his son – and as viewers will see, passed down to Akilla. And sadly, you teach what you know, you teach what has worked. Products of poverty and lack of opportunity, both Akilla’s grandfather and father were born into a life of violence, the gangs the means to not only obtain a livelihood but prominence, recognition, and opportunity. And once the cycle begins, it can be near impossible to break.

Akilla’s Escape gives viewers a moment of hope, a glimmer that change is possible. Even in the smallest of increments, this cycle can be chipped away. A gang member chooses not to follow through on his orders; a boy standing up to abuse, and a child inspired by the sacrifices of others. With each step, presumed inevitability is challenged and freedom is embraced.

Akilla’s Escape premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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