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‘Sing Sing’ Review: Colman Domingo’s Prison-Set Drama Packs a Punch

The fall festivals have seen a number of actors make strong cases for their presence in this year’s awards race, from Emma Stone for “Poor Things” to Jeffrey Wright for “American Fiction.” But few have been as authoritative as Colman Domingo in “Rustin,” which could help Domingo’s other movie, “Sing Sing,” get some attention as well with its premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday.

Written and directed by Greg Kwedar (“Jockey”), the indie drama is a curious concoction that finds veteran actor Domingo playing a would-be playwright in a theater program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility; his fellow actors, with the notable exception of “Sound of Metal” Oscar nominee Paul Raci, are, for the most part, former prisoners who took place in that actual program and are billed in the credits as playing themselves.

The result isn’t seamless or slick but there’s an urgency and a grit to it, and a sense of lives lost and occasionally regained. These men aren’t making great theater, but behind these walls they’re doing something other than waiting for time to run out.

The movie gives them all juicy roles — particularly Domingo, who opens the film delivering the “the course of true love never did run smooth” speech from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” straight into the camera, in the process making those Act I passages feel like a grand finale.

Colman plays Whitfield, aka Divine G, the acknowledged leader of the prisoners who put on a theater production at Sing Sing every six months. As the next production approaches, it’s time to recruit some new participants for the RTA (Rehabilitation Through the Arts) program, and Divine G and his cellmate Mike Mike choose a scam artist and prison bully called Divine Eye on a hunch.

The name similarities between the two Divines presage power struggles to come. (Domingo plays a real person, while Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin plays himself.) It starts when the brash newcomer, who seems reluctant to perform in the kind of drama that might require some soul-searching or vulnerability, suggests they do a comedy instead — and before long, their director and acting coach, played by Raci, has been commissioned to write an original comedy that starts in Ancient Egypt, includes time travel and incorporates a Wild West shootout and pirates.

It’s ridiculous, but the point is that it allows the prisoners to get outside themselves while also facing a little of what’s inside. We start to see that in a lengthy audition sequence, where a prisoner whose face is covered with an enormous tattoo is asked what other roles he’s played.

“I’ve been playing a role my whole life,” he says.

You don’t get much sense of what this crazy show is like, but that’s probably for the best; the play is light but the film is somber, as the realities of prison life — fights, clemency hearings, deaths, a fear of ever appearing weak — intrude regularly on the entertainment.

This could get claustrophobic, but Kwedar is determined to put it in context; every so often, the camera backs up and shows us the prison from the outside – from across the river, from the train station that sits just outside the barbed wire fence.

But the action, much of it stormy, takes place inside. The former prisoners playing themselves bring verisimilitude to “Sing Sing,” with Maclin particularly crucial. But Domingo brings the storm and the heart; the performance won’t overshadow “Rustin” this awards season, but it’s another sign that the time has come for this deep and soulful actor to get some real attention.

“Sing Sing” is a sales title at TIFF.

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