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Prison Song


Prison Song

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Both Q-Tip and Nia Vardalos made their starring cinematic debuts in films they also wrote or co-wrote. Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding aspired to little more than bringing the reassuring homogeneity of sitcoms to the big screen; when a sitcom adaptation of Wedding was announced, it almost seemed redundant. Q-Tip's Prison Song, in sharp contrast, aims to do nothing less than offer a point-by-point critique of the prison industrial system while integrating musical sequences into a miserablist drama. Wedding was rewarded for its mediocrity with untold box-office riches and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, while Q-Tip's film was punished for its unfettered ambition with an airing on BET, followed by a discreet video burial. Prison Song isn't a smashing success; it's not even a partial success, really, but it's much more compelling than its inauspicious path to home video would suggest. The film opens with sobering statistics about the percentage of black males in prison, establishing a tone of preachiness from which it seldom wavers. Mary J. Blige co-stars as Q-Tip's mother, who first watches his father get killed by corrupt cops, then is horrified as Q-Tip's beloved surrogate father is hauled to jail on a third-strike conviction, sending her reeling into a permanent place in a psychiatric institution. Q-Tip's younger self is then sent to a group home, where he emerges years later as a prodigiously gifted photographer with a college scholarship. When his federal financial aid is cut back, he turns to street pharmacist N.O.R.E. for help, but later gets into a physical altercation with neighborhood bully Fat Joe. The fight culminates in Joe's accidental death, which earns Q-Tip a trip to a private prison, where he learns firsthand about the urgent need for prison reform. Prison Song is a clumsy piece of filmmaking: The characters function less as human beings than as personifications of Important Social Issues, while the thirtysomething Q-Tip is only slightly more plausible as a high-school student than Roberto Benigni was as a boy puppet. But it's easy to admire the film's passion and ambition. Even at its weakest, it resonates with conviction, and at its best, its audacity is startling.