top of page

'Sing Sing' Review

Star_rating_0_of_5 (1).png
April 23, 2024
Hunter Friesen
  • Instagram
  • Letterboxd
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn

This review was originally published at the 2024 Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Film Festival. A24 will release the film in theaters in July.

Blue streamers, a paper bird, a cardboard crown, stitched-together outfits, sheet cloth backgrounds, and a dim searchlight. These are the things that are used to turn reality into dreams within Sing Sing Correctional Facility, located just north of New York City. The actors up on that makeshift stage have been put there through Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a real-life prison program that aims to help incarcerated individuals channel their creativity in a way that helps them become better suited to their eventual life outside of the cement walls. “We are here to become human again,” is the mantra that the participants live by, with many of them having been a a part of the program for too many seasons to count.

One of those veteran cast members is John 'Divine G' Whitfield, who has claimed Sing Sing as his home since he was wrongfully convicted of murders in the 1980s (the film takes place in 2005). He’s become somewhat of a minor celebrity across the prison system, with his plays and books, which he authors by clacking away on a typewriter within his tiny cell, reaching a wide audience of fellow inmates. He’s usually the brains of the operation, coming up with the ideas and scripts for the new productions, and starring in the lead roles. But while his next idea revolves around social satire, the others in the program would like to branch away from the “serious” material (their latest production was King Lear) and do something else. Somebody wants to do a Western, another wants something in Ancient Egypt, someone else wants to continue with Shakespeare, while another wants to play Freddie Krueger. Instead of choosing just one of those options, they decide to stitch them all together through time travel in their own original production.

Adapting from the Esquire article “The Sing Sing Follies,” co-writer/director Greg Kwedar takes a naturalistic approach to the proceedings. After each of their performances, the actors are showered with applause from their inmate audience. They go backstage and congratulate each other on the great job that they’ve done. But instead of going out and celebrating, or receiving bouquets of flowers from adoring fans, they’re met with a wave of guards ready to sternly escort them back to their cells. The stark reality of this almost makes it more impressive that they persist season after season to put on a good show. None of this will advance their careers, nor will there be any sort of monetary reward at the end of this road.

That non-professional aesthetic extends into the cast as well; with Kwedar only casting three professional actors in Colman Domingo as Divine G, Paul Raci as the group’s advisor, and Sean San Jose as G’s best friend. Much of the other roles are made up of former incarcerated members of the real-life troupe, which gives an unsanitized look at how the program has changed their lives. Talking at the post-screening Q&A, Kwedar mentioned the inspiration he took from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in terms of casting, with Domingo’s Oscar-nominated presence making him stand out similarly to Jack Nicholson.

The role of Nurse Ratched is played here by The New York State Board of Parole, who constantly serve as the roadblock to Divine G’s potential release. That feeling of persevering through hopelessness is at the heart of Kwedar and Clint Bentley’s script, but it never comes across in an elevated fashion. Much of the tin-eared lines come from Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin (playing himself excellently), who makes several speeches about the streets being his home and that you shouldn’t put faith in the system.

Bryce Dessner’s somber score soothes your ears between those moments, and Pat Scola’s quietly investigative camera roams the concrete jungle. Sing Sing is an important film when it's all put together, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lecture. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the production of the play, with the sheer creativity being incredibly infectious. Don’t be surprised to constantly hear about this film throughout the rest of the year.

'Back to Black' Review

Everything has been scrubbed with disinfectant several times over, leaving behind a product so basic that you’d barely get the impression that this person was special at all.

'I Saw the TV Glow' Review

I can’t get it out of my head, and that’s what’s most important.

'Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes' Review

It rises above the notion that it’s an unnecessary addition, as it reaches for newer relevant themes in a world turned upside down.

'We Grown Now' Review

Faults aside, "We Grown Now" still has some powerfulness as it brings eyes to a part of an iconic city that’s unknown to outsiders.

'Unfrosted' Review

It’s all a farce that makes for an inoffensive 90 minutes on Netflix.
bottom of page