'O.G.': Film Review

O.G. Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of the Tribeca FIlm Festival
A strong character study with some behind-the-scenes baggage.

Jeffrey Wright plays an inmate near the end of his sentence in the first dramatic feature by documentarian Madeleine Sackler.

Planted mostly in a tasteful middle ground between Shawshank sentimentality and the terrors of Oz, Madeleine Sackler's prison film O.G. revolves around a deeply sympathetic performance by Jeffrey Wright as a longtime prisoner about to re-enter the outside world. It arrives on HBO in the long gap between a second, problematic season of Westworld and a third whose premiere is TBA. Subscribers who notice the pic only as a far-too-rare chance to see Wright in a central role will likely not know two more newsworthy things about the film — more on those later — but what's actually on the screen is worth their time.

Wright plays Louis, who has spent over 24 years in prison and is set to go free in just a few weeks. He robbed and killed a man in his youth, but the man we meet here is fully in charge of his impulses: He steps calmly out of his cell when chosen for a random contraband search; makes just enough small talk with his guard to be polite; and cleans up the mess searchers leave behind without even looking like he minds.

Louis is an elder statesman, long past the time when he oversaw all the prison's illicit activities. He has some kind of beef with the inmates' current "mayor," Terry (James Durham), but mostly manages to avoid crossing paths with him. Still, he's not an entirely uninterested party: When a new arrival at the prison seems set to join Terry's gang, Louis can't help but try to steer him away.

"Hey, let me breathe on you for a second," he says as Beecher (Theothus Carter) is crossing a basketball court to meet Terry's people. "Normally I ain't one to preach," he continues, but "runnin' with them? No future in it." Without getting preachy, Louis advise the youth to make his time inside — 25 years, at minimum — peaceful, seeking "dignity, self-respect, grace." But Beecher looks almost certain to seek short-term comforts, whatever it takes.

As the two men continue this conversation in ensuing scenes, viewers may guess, correctly, that Carter is not a trained actor — that he was cast not only for his presence and ability to capture our attention, but also for similarities between his life and the character's. What they won't know is that he actually is an inmate at the prison where the film was shot, as are a great many of the people we see in speaking and non-speaking roles. Sackler got exceedingly rare, maybe unprecedented access, shooting her film inside a working maximum-security unit using many of its actual denizens (both prisoners and guards) as her cast. Though it would be an overstatement to claim the film is more convincing than similar dramas thanks to its unusual cast, shooting in Pendleton Correctional Facility — a photogenic Indiana prison that once housed John Dillinger — does lend it a distinctive look.

(Despite having an above-the-title acting credit, Carter is not listed on the film's IMDb page; nor is James Durham, one of the cast's other real-world inmates. It's one more example of the increasing unreliability, sometimes verging on uselessness, of a site cherished by cinephiles and film professionals.)

The film's unusual production was fairly well publicized preceding O.G.'s release at last year's Tribeca festival. But the fest and the film's producers were less eager to discuss another behind-the-scenes tidbit:

We live in a time when an unprecedented amount of criticism is being aimed, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, at people who choose to write, sing, act or paint stories others feel they have no claim to. In this environment, it would already attract some notice that a film about impoverished imprisoned black men is directed by a white woman from an extremely rich family. But this particular family makes the situation vastly more thorny. Sackler is the granddaughter of one of the men who bought Purdue Pharma in 1952; her father is one of the company's directors; and the Sacklers have become one of the world's richest families by, in part, pushing OxyContin more effectively than all the drug-crime prisoners in Pendleton combined. Embedded in the closing title crawl is a lament about the number of Americans rotting in prisons. That title card says nothing about the vast percentage of prisoners whose crimes arose from addiction to or the illegal sale of narcotics. There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of Sackler's concern for her subjects. But it's easy to imagine many of those affected by the opioid epidemic would prefer not to have her speaking up for them.

Wherever one stands on that issue, the worst one can say about Sackler's actual performance as a filmmaker is that she leans too hard into impressionistic sequences meant to illustrate Louis' apprehensiveness about what freedom will bring. Stephen Belber's script gives us exactly as much information as we require on this front, and Wright is certainly not the kind of actor who needs help conveying a character's inner life.

Knowing that his release isn't a done deal until Pendleton's gates clank closed behind him, Louis has a hard time intervening in action that looks certain to send Beecher down a dangerous path. It's hard to see a viable resolution, but Belber's screenplay manages to find it — one just believable enough to close a long chapter in this man's life with dignity, self-respect and grace.

Production company: Great Curve Films
Distributor: Home Box Office
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Theothus Carter, William Fichtner, David Patrick Kelly, Ryan Cutrona
Director: Madeleine Sackler
Screenwriter: Stephen Belber
Producers: Stephen Belber, Ged Dickersin, Nick Gordon
Executive producers: Kareem Biggs Burke, Sharon Chang, Wally Eltawashy
Director of photography: Wolfgang Held
Production designer: Michael Bricker
Costume designer: Heidi Bivens
Editor: Frederic Thoraval
Composer: Nathaniel Mechaly
Casting director: Richard Hicks

113 minutes