'Akilla's Escape' Reminds Us That Drug Violence Didn't Disappear with Legalization

Directed by Charles Officer

Starring Saul Willams, Thamela Mpumlwana, Ronnie Rowe, Donisha Rita Claire Prendergast, Vic Mensa

BY Chris LuciantonioPublished Jun 14, 2021

The legalization of recreational cannabis use in Canada in October of 2018 was met with much rejoicing after a decades-long campaign of petitioning the government and a drastic shift in the public opinion of pot use. What is less talked about, and is central to documentarian Charles Officer's latest fiction film, is how, despite the formal legalization of cannabis, black market is from a thing of the past.

Officer's film takes place in this moment of transition for the country and the nascent cannabis industry and depicts — with disquieting effectiveness — the cycles of violence which proliferated as criminal organizations jockeyed for control over their dwindling share of the business as government regulation cut into their profits.

Our chaperone into this underworld is Akilla (Saul Williams), a weathered soldier in the drug trade who is hoping to make a clean break from the business with the arrival of legalization. As shown through a hefty flashback structure, Akilla was someone born into this violent world and hardened quickly, being the son of a ruthless drug kingpin in Brooklyn (Ronnie Rowe) who indoctrinated him into the drug trade and his gang (Garrison's Army) at the tender age of 15. His father, a Jamaican immigrant moulded by the poverty and violence of his homeland's turbulent 20th century, inculcates a callous worldview in Akilla and leaves him with little hope of breaking free from that same path.

These extended flashbacks crop into and inform upon the film's main story which takes place over a particularly dangerous night in Akilla's current business in Toronto. As played with an icy and intimidating presence by Williams, who really sells the impression of being internally tortured by deep-seated generational violence, the film follows the aftermath of a robbery, as a local gang makes off with $150,000 from one of the dispensaries he runs product for and Akilla captures a young gunman Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana).

Being that the boy is 15 years old and Mpumlwana also plays a young Akilla in the many flashbacks, the film positions this character as Akilla's effective redemption — his opportunity to close the cycle of violence he has lived in his entire life.

Officer's film makes the most out of its duelling timeline structure by distinctly varying its visual presentation to great effect. Akilla's troubled past in Brooklyn is shot by cinematographer Maya Bankovic to carry a warm, wistful, even bright texture, which contrasts beautifully with the sleek and luminous Toronto streets that make up the present. The impression of each contained time period is felt almost immediately after each sudden jump back and forth, as Akilla comes to realize how much of his buried past is coming through in this night of unplanned violence. The scenes taking place in the present explicitly give off the aura of the classic neo-noir, especially in the pointed use of neon lighting and shadow used to capture Toronto's urban jungle.

While the film is well-paced, given its brief runtime and the way it gradually builds up to Akilla's epiphany, the lopsided emphasis on the flashbacks over the present storyline leaves something to be desired. Feeling overly expository at times, the didactic flashbacks and the telegraphed way Officer interjects them can interrupt the flow of the main story and loosen a lot of the tension surrounding Akilla's current situation. The moral of the story would have played just as well if Officer and co-writer Wendy Motion Brathwaite were to have found a more even balance between Akilla's past and present.

Even though much of the film's message about generational violence and its influence on youth is spelt out in blunt terms, Akilla's Escape still explores its themes effectively. The film remains a moving portrait of the unsung casualties of the long-delayed legalization cause, and how the deeply entrenched violence of the drug trade didn't disappear overnight once cannabis became legal. Akilla's story is one marked by tragedy, but his actions to leave the cruel world he knew and prevent the same mistakes for Sheppard leave the film with a sombre hopefulness after a turbulent night of bitter violence.

Akilla's Escape comes out digitally on June 15.

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