We are more than the worst thing we have done. But what if the worst thing we ever do becomes part of the path to becoming our best self?

Writer/director Greg Kwedar has a history of taking us to places we don’t often see (behind the scenes of horse racing and the private lives of jockeys in Jockey) or places that are often reduced to political talking points (the US/Mexico border in Transpecos) and giving us stories of profound emotional depth and humanity. For his latest feature, Sing Sing, Kwedar takes inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY. Based on a true story, the film centers on the work of RTA (Rehabilitation Through the Arts) and, in particular, John “Divine G” Whitfield (Coleman Domingo) and his lovable cast of troupe mates (most of whom are formerly incarcerated participants that participated in the program during their time in prison) as they co-write, rehearse, and perform a new play under the leadership of their coach and director, Brent (Paul Raci). This casting is possible, in part, due to the program’s amazing 3% recidivism rate. Along with Whitfield, the film also focuses on newcomer (to both the program and the screen) Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, who plays himself in a performance that is every bit as magnetic as Domingo’s. The two Divines are the alternating heartbeats of the film. Domingo, wrongfully incarcerated, never loses hope and fights for his own release, refusing to succumb to fear, anger and defeat. He also works to help release other wrongfully detained inmates. Divine Eye, on the other hand, admits to doing the crime and has resigned himself to do the time. His presence is one of seething anger that can erupt at the slightest provocation, and it’s also something of a righteous anger born out of his knowledge that the system is broken and works to break people like him and the communities from which he comes. 

The film is beautiful and lovingly written and shot. You can tell that Kwedar loves and respects his subject both in the film and from the conversations around it. He was visibly emotional when his cast walked out on stage for the Q and A. It’s also a deeply intimate drama. The majority of the shots are closeups, making us feel as if we are in the circle with the inmates as they plan their next performance and on stage with them as they rehearse and ultimately perform it. And what else can be said about Coleman Domingo? He brings another awards-nomination-worthy performance to the screen, and his co-stars shine just as brightly. 

All of this serves as a necessary reminder of the humanity of individuals that our society regularly treats as less than. It reminded me of another festival favorite this year, the documentary Daughters, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It tells the story of a prison program in which inmates agree to a a counseling program that culminates in a daddy/daughter dance. 98% of participants in this program never return to prison upon release. These two films make it clear that there is much work left to be done regarding prison reform and that MORE contact with family and MORE creative outlets are necessary for lasting rehabilitation and transformation. 

Sing Sing will release in theaters later this year and is sure to be one of the best films of the year.