‘Sing Sing’ Review: Colman Domingo and a Cast of Ex-Criminals Demonstrate How Art Can Heal in Prison

Cages can’t contain the sheer amount of imagination on offer in “Sing Sing” — not just in the way director Greg Kwedar and his writing and producing partner Clint Bentley conceived of the prison-set drama, but also as an animating force among its characters. Apart from Colman Domingo and a few others, most of the cast are formerly incarcerated alumni of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program, which stages theatrical productions at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility. While inside the walls of a penitentiary, the amateur thespians are afforded the opportunity to step outside their worst offenses and simply inhabit another character for a change, someone who is likely to be more revealing of who they really are than their jail-issued fatigues will allow.

Drawing from their experience as volunteer teachers at correctional facilities, Kwedar and Bentley are conscious of the raw power of seeing these men transform before our eyes from hardened prisoners into playful performers. A handful of scenes may run slightly longer than they should, but it’s a small price to pay, considering the deeply empathetic and hugely engaging look “Sing Sing” offers of the carceral system, where no one should be defined by their past and written off by society.

The creative duo, who alternating projects in the director’s chair, build upon the approach they took in “Jockey,” the Bentley-helmed 2021 collaboration which placed Clifton Collins Jr. amid members of the horse-racing community. In “Sing Sing,” the pair have devised a story with a clear anchor in Domingo’s character, Divine G, one of the real-life founders of the RTA program, serving a stretch for a murder he swears he did not commit. Given the film’s emphasis on imagination, the end game of mounting a production is far less important than the acting exercises they do along the way. Audiences share a palpable sense of catharsis with the prisoners in moments when some deeply buried emotional truth emerges, typically under the cover of playing a character.

Adding quite a lot to the proceedings is Paul Raci, who brought similar integrity and soulfulness to “Sound of Metal.” Here, he plays Brent, a theater director brought in to run these exercises and eventually try to wrangle an unorthodox production into shape. Since the prisoners can’t agree on what play to perform, Brent drafts an extravagant time-travel comedy with roles for everyone, from an Egyptian prince to Hamlet to Freddy Krueger, plus massive gladiator battles and musical numbers for the entire cast.

Director of photography Patrick Scola isn’t the only one who finds interesting angles within the industrial confines of “Sing Sing.” As the film dutifully builds toward the big day of the show, it finds a fascinating tension between Divine G and another prisoner, Blaze (Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin), who is resigned to “being a gangster [when] that’s what’s working,” though he is clearly capable of more. Divine G wouldn’t have started the RTA if he didn’t believe in the reformative potential in people like Blaze, but his generosity is tested when the new recruit auditions for the part he wanted. From this minor threat to his ego a tentative friendship emerges, as Divine G encourages Blaze to seek a parole hearing, even as his own appeal hits a dead end.

Domingo gives a commanding performance. Watching the light in Divine G’s eyes diminish even just a little amounts to a tragedy that “Sing Sing” need not overstate. Even though Divine G sees himself as an authority figure among the prisoners, the “Euphoria” scene-stealer is also captivating when simply taking in information, instinctively recognizing when to cede the spotlight to his nonprofessional co-stars. There’s a live-wire energy to scenes where the whole cast participates, accentuated by Scola’s whirlwind camerawork and the nimble and energetic piano-and-string score from Bryce Dessner during rehearsal scenes. As these unconventional actors disappear into their given roles on stage, “Sing Sing” shows they are often miscast in their own lives.

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