Charles Officer’s Akilla’s Escape (2020) centres on the 40-year-old titular character, a clandestine drug dealer who unexpectedly walks into the middle of a hold-up one night. In the aftermath of the heist, Akilla captures one the youths. When he learns that he’s affiliated with a Jamaican crime syndicate his grandfather founded, he’s forced to confront the cycle of generational violence he thought he’d escaped.
The story cuts back and forth between Akilla’s adolescent past in New York, and present day Toronto, where he has found a way to live life on his own terms. Officer and co-writer Wendy Motion Brathwaite’s stylish neo-noir crime film offers a powerful reflection on the urban child soldier turned man.
Poet and musician Saul Williams, who plays Akilla, created the score in collaboration with Massive Attack’s 3D. Officer’s previous work includes Nurse.Fighter.Boy (2008), about a sick mother and her son who cross paths with a fighter facing his own struggles. He also directed the documentary Unarmed Verses (2017), and Invisible Essence: The Little Prince (2018), about the generational resonance of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, first published in 1943.
Officer and Williams talk with PopMatters about the cultural-political relevance of the story, and the importance of using every means of expression to challenge power structures, both political and non-political. They also talk about the impact of the “oblivious violence of privilege” on other cultures, and how violence is the pandemic of our species.
Actress and filmmaker Pollyanna McInTosh, said to me, “I’d love to just never talk about the film and just let people experience it how they experience it, because you don’t make a film to say, “This is what the case is, this is the truth.” You make a film to say, “This is something for you to experience,” and therefore inherently it’s the audience that makes what the truth is for themselves.”
Was this how you approached the rich themes and ideas of Akilla’s Escape?
Charles Officer: It’s the motive for doing the work. We’re speaking to narratives that could be culturally personal to us, or we’ve a personal resonance to the themes and ideas that could be foreign to somebody else. The beautiful thing about cinema and storytelling is that the narratives that resonate with us are the ones that we find a connection to.
You’re not trying to beat someone over the head or force them into a way of thinking. The beautiful thing about the form is that it stimulates a response, whether it be visceral, tangible, spiritual, or intellectual. It’s nice to make work that might lead someone to want to learn more about something, to open that floodgate a little and investigate.
This was the intention with Akilla’s Escape. We’re trying to mash-up genre with a bit of soul and historical context, with the politics of violence from a specific island that now trickles across North America and into our news.
Saul Williams: What’s beautiful about the film and what I look for in cinema as a viewer, is when a director leaves space for thought and contemplation. The experience is cheapened when that space is not available. There should be room for the viewer to breathe and contemplate, to understand and live with the choices that the characters are making, and why, instead of like you say. Charles, being hit over the head with information all the time.
The failing here in the UK is that we don’t teach politics in school. It’s essential to educate young people on the subject because democracy requires engagement. This leaves us vulnerable, blind to the realities of political agendas and the spiel of politicians.
I often feel that films can create a relatability on a human level in a way that the news reporting struggles to, because it talks at people. Storytelling can disarm indifference or lack of interest, inviting the person to be part of a conversation and to develop their own ideas.
Officer: Our societies are built on corrupt political systems that have their agendas. These have affected us and we see it constantly. The awareness of youth, and even what the media’s providing us — there’s always a point-of-view of the disconnection to believe that the political structures don’t have a real impact on the welfare, just the survival of people.
I’m speaking about Black people with whom over the last year the dialogue has increased. Filmmakers and storytellers have been talking about this for generations. They’ve been telling the truth. What brought me to Saul’s work many years ago is that I found my own source of truth that was reliable.
It’s important, because for the youth, there’s sometimes the space for not understanding the way that political factions work, how they affect you, and then you’ll think your entry point is today. There’s an historical line that has been perpetuated and repeated.
What blows my mind about the amazing stories and songs, music, and poems from Black artists is it’s all there. We can continue to build this archive, but somehow the voice of power that influences the masses is not telling the truth.
This is why it’s necessary for us to continue to break these things down, and not just make documentaries, but use every form to talk about these things. We all have our own entry points to how we engage, and cinema and the space of visual storytelling allows space for people to gain another perspective.
Williams: This is crucial. Charles is right in noting that [engagement] has been spoken about for generations. The dismissive tendencies of the power structures have done so much, that sometimes you don’t even encounter these great works until you dive deep. Then you realise, ‘Oh my God, not only did they say this, but they said this when?’
This puts us in the position of finding our broader platforms, the more instinctive and unique ways of contextualising our stories, then putting that information along with imagination out there for the sake of essentially not repeating history, which is difficult. Much of what we’re talking about angers us because it’s a relived history. We’ve seen these things happen before.
When you talk about violence in our communities as well as systemic violence, this is not new, even if they’re new topics for some who are listening. For those of us that have been engaged [with these issues], the have been with us since our birth.
Art plays a role in heightening these realities and inserting truth and possibilities into our reality. It’s so impressionable that it has a huge impact on how people choose to see themselves. It’s important for filmmakers to up the ante and to play with that.
We’re forced to be historians and dive into the imagination and to go deeper. We have to have a sense of contextualising [the story] in relation to the things that have existed in the past, that have already been said and done. There’s still so much work to be done, but it’s a crucial part of what inspires me about the work of Charles, for example.
In one scene Akilla talks about evolution, and how those who adapt–not the strong–will survive. There’s an arrogance in the West founded on a false sense of security raised here. The Trump Administration and the heightened threat from extremist right-wing groups were a wake-up call to the vulnerable nature of democracy.
Is it necessary for Western democracies to dismiss ideas of strength and instead focus on adaptability? This is particularly relevant for the UK in the wake of Brexit because the ongoing rhetoric of the greatness of the country and its strength on the world stage could have devastating consequences.
Williams: I believe that what you’re addressing is essentially the patriarchal architecture of western society. The way it has been built up and our relationship to power, our relationship to strength, whether that’s military strength or financial strength, and of course our relationship to vulnerability. We’ve deemed that vulnerability as weakness, when vulnerability is also adaptability.
Akilla’s Escape recognises that vulnerability and adaptability are strength and wisdom. The power structures at large have a lot of growth to do in how they’ll end the patriarchy and put a hold on racialised capitalism, which perpetuate this myth and ideology of power and its structures. It continues to criminalise the same people, in the same ways, and continues to commit genocide in the same ways, and yet here we are with more communicative tools available to us.
We’re trying our best to call these structures out. When I say, “abolish the police”, I’m not saying something absurd. I’m saying something that maybe you should listen to. There’s a reason why Angela Davis and many other thinkers, including Ruth [Wilson] Gilmore, have approached this idea over time.
The role of the abolitionist is not new, the role of the abolitionist was there during slavery. The role of the anti-capitalist is not new. We are realising the validity in this and especially in the face of the pandemic, when we see that these power structures–with all the wealth that they’ve built–are still susceptible. What gets me is the susceptibility of people who buy into this nonsense because of whatever privilege it affords them.
In the West we believe geographical distance means we’re far removed from other cultures, for example the horrors of child soldiers on the African continent. This is naïve because the gang cultures in Western countries indoctrinate young people into a life of crime and violence, driven in part by poverty and the lack of economic opportunity. Child soldiers are closer to home than we’re often willing to admit.
Officer: It’s this idea of comparable suffering. “Oh well, I live in this urban centre, thank God I don’t live there.” I’m finding being Canadian is, “Thank goodness we don’t live in the United States of America.” It’s bullshit. It’s the same nonsense as anti-black racism and systemic violence–these attitudes don’t have borders.
To assume a little bit less is better than a little bit more is comparable nonsense. You’re looking at the government operating as gangsters, at teamsters that are gangsters. The people running the education system boards are gangsters, the bankers and the high-end wealth makers, and money managers are gangsters.
There’s a sense of coming to a truth and that’s where I’ve had to clock my own naïvety. Not everyone wants to deal with the truth and to understand. Not everyone wants the anti-racism rant, the omophobia or Islamophobia to go away, because they’re operating on this idea of a false sense of empowering themselves. It goes back to these ideas about what power is, and what that means. With COVID and everything else, the world has been brought to a standstill. Violence and all these types of things are pandemic, and they spread.
Williams: I’d take it a step further and say that poverty is a construct. When you talk about people feeling as if they’re removed from other cultures, or societies because of geographical distance, if you’re in England, Germany or America, you’re not so far removed. Your economy is based solely on the sourcing of materials that come from those places. That then creates the child soldiers.
You, and when I say you, I mean the power structures, they’ve imposed those realities on those geographical regions. There’s a direct connection between that and the coffee you enjoy in the morning, and the sugar you put in your coffee. The list goes on: the rubber in the tyres of your car, the oil for your car, the coltan that’s in your phones and your laptops. None of that stuff comes from the places where people feel comfortable and safely removed from the violence that they may acknowledge elsewhere.
It’s the oblivious violence of privilege that imposes those realities elsewhere. The more that we become cognoscente of that and take actual steps to address that in our lives and our choices, the greater possibility we have of actually creating a global society that operates beyond this white supremacist notion of control.
When we question the capacity of a film to change the world and we cynically dismiss its value in this regard, we’re perhaps not considering it in the correct context. Cinema can change the perspective of an individual, who can then impact the way someone else thinks and sees the world. It’s a trickle effect rather than the dramatic change we might imagine.
Officer: It’s why I moved my aspirations toward this medium. I felt [the film] was encompassing and powerful. I believe that you can change one mind at a time, or you can inspire one thing at a time, and that’s a powerful thing in itself. The power of exposing through cinema and storytelling is that it allows you to trigger one thought or idea in another person, and that can spark a fire.
I’ve seen films that have had a greater social impact than NGOs with millions of dollars of support. I’ve witnessed it, and we even use the term “world”, but the “world” for some folks is a block.
I believe that–and it’s not naïve, or this optimistic point-of-view–that [film] has that power to change mind effectively across nations. It’s one of the main things that inspires me about this work.
The power of cinema is it immortalises, as does music. It never goes away, which is a terrifying thing because once you call picture lock, that’s it.
Williams: Fela Kuti said, “Music is the weapon of the future.” Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music is when it hits, you feel no pain.” In terms of cinema, when Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator (1940), mocking Adolf Hitler, at that time the US government was allies with Germany. Chaplin was blacklisted for making that film, but its success helped to change the temperature in America. The country changed its position on Germany to the one that the country still boasts about today–the role it played in ending World War II.
Film and art has the power to impact public opinion and public dialogue. In relation to democracy, we know that public dialogue finds it’s way into government structures, into bills that come to life.
The impact of art is not to be overlooked, and it doesn’t make an artist naïve to aim to affect change through work. Like 2Pac said, “I may not change the world, but I want to spark the mind.”
Risker, Paul. “Finding Community and Comfort in the Shadow of Religion, Exploitation and Trump: An Interview with Pollyanna McIntosh and Lauryn Canny”. Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film & Visual Narration (MSJ). Vol 5, No 1, Spring 2020.