Sing Sing Is One of 2024's Most Emotionally Resonant and Visually Transfixing Cinematic Triumphs

2023 Toronto International Film Festival - "Sing Sing" Premiere
2023 Toronto International Film Festival - "Sing Sing" Premiere / Jemal Countess/GettyImages

It can be easy to minimize the importance of art, especially for folks crafting new works in that field. American society doesn't value art. Funding is relentlessly cut for public school art programs. Writing, acting, directing, and anything else artistic is often dismissed as a placeholder gig before "a real job" presents itself. These realities can wear on people who put so much of themselves into artistic expression. Is it all a folly? Is this all as fruitless as everyone says it is? What’s the point of all this?

The truth is, though, art is so critically important. Few have crystallized this as well as Ethan Hawke . “Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, right?” Hawke observes during this speaking engagement. However, Hawke further notes that when tragedy or unspeakably joy hit our lives, thoughts like “has anybody felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?” or “Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?” race through our mind. Poetry and other forms of art can be a vital way to navigate those emotions. “That’s when art’s not a luxury,” Hawke concludes. “it’s actually sustenance. We need it.”

Sing Sing protagonist John "Divine G" Whitfield (Colman Domingo) is very conscious of art's essentiality in processing the wider world. An inmate at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Whitfield is one of the principal members of Sing Sing's theatre program. Under the guidance of director Brent Buell (Paul Raci), Whitfield and other Sing Sing inmates use theatre as a form of therapy. They channel emotions, passion, and vulnerability that can help them heal. No longer does a rap sheet solely define their existence. They can become Hamlet, Freddy Kreuger, or any other fictional character showing up in one of the plays Sing Sing puts on.

Sing Sing chronicles an especially tumultuous time in the life of Whitfield. For one thing, his parole hearing is coming up. This man has spent decades collecting evidence and research to prove his innocence. Now he’s gearing up for a fateful day where a handful of people behind a table will decide his fate. Meanwhile, the theatre program he loves so much has a newcomer, Clarence "Divine Eye" Maclin (playing himself). This figure begins to secure roles Whitfield previously thought were assuredly his. Maclin also starts upending standards of the theatre department. Just as Whitfield prepares to hopefully re-enter the outside world, he must also grapple with this challenge to his Sing Sing status quo.

Writer/director Greg Kwedar (who penned the script with Clint Bentley) executes Sing Sing with a cast almost entirely comprised of actual former Sing Sing Correctional Facility convicts. Save for Domingo and Raci, performers on-screen are playing variations of themselves seeped in years of experience behind bars. This decision makes the naturalism of Sing Sing all the more convincing. Most importantly, this detail accentuates the entire movie’s empathetic gaze. Kwedar is weaving a tale about restoring humanity to people who believe they aren’t worthy of visibility. That could fizzle out if the proceedings starred famous actors engaging in flashy approximations of downtrodden down-to-Earth beings, like Glenn Close’s cringe-inducing work in Hillbilly Elegy.

Such aloof and caricatured turns are absent from Sing Sing. Relying on real people lends emotional immediacy to the proceedings. Better yet, it allows a slew of unknown performers to shine on the big screen. Clarence "Divine Eye" Maclin, for instance, more than holds his own acting against veteran performers like Domingo and Raci. Supporting player Sean "Dino" Johnson also delivers unforgettable work in displays of his character rehearsing lines during everyday tasks. Most viewers will enter the theater in the dark on Sing Sing’s supporting performers. They’ll undoubtedly leave buzzing about their immense talent.  

Kwedar and cinematographer Pat Scola capture these performances with remarkably precise camerawork. That preciseness is reflected beautifully in the movie's 1:66:1 aspect ratio. This framing style functions as a middle ground between the expansive 2.35:1 canvas and the much narrower 1.33:1 Academy Ratio. It's nowhere near CinemaScope in size, nor is it as claustrophobic as, say, the framing in silent movies or The Lighthouse. This detail beautifully reflects many aspects of Sing Sing. This includes how it suggests the physical restrictions of these lead characters who can't leave Sing Sing, However, the extra space in shots compared to 1.33:1 frames communicates the exhilarating freedom these prisoners feel as performers. However, this aspect ratio's especially resonant capturing Whitfield and his comrades feeling stuck in a societal middle ground. They’re human beings with nuances, feelings, desires, and everything in between. Yet many see them as only animals worthy of a cage. Their unique placement in society informs this equally distinctive aspect ratio.

Those images, meanwhile, are rendered on film. This technique lends further immediacy to Whitfield and his surroundings. In the wrong hands, digital camerawork would’ve made Sing Sing prison feel too glossy, a simulacrum of restrictive confines. Utilizing film stock, Sing Sing’s imagery perfectly complements the feature’s richly experienced performances. Plus, shooting on film provides the surface-level pleasure of making Sing Sing look gorgeous on a big screen. Natural light pouring into the inmate’s rehearsal space, for instance, just is so extra radiant on film.

Visually and emotionally, Sing Sing is a tour de force. However, it also excels as a reaffirmation that Colman Domingo is one incredible performer. For years, Domingo's delivered unforgettable supporting turns in movies ranging from If Beale Street Could Talk to Zola. He astonishes once again here, especially in how he proves that you don’t need to be a Jared Leto nuisance to “transform” as an actor. Every subtle detail in Domingo’s performance, from his portrayal of Whitfield holding his glasses to the depiction of this man’s conflicting emotions about Maclin’s increased dominance in the theatre program, brings us closer to Whitfield as a human being.

One doesn’t see Domingo straining to craft a new human being in Sing Sing. This masterful performer makes us believe every inch of Whitfield’s physicality and personality just through his body language. Who needs “method acting” when you can conjure up people with such subtlety and tact? His understated but endlessly captivating performance is a perfect anchor for Sing Sing. After all, this is a motion picture fixated on quiet forms of beauty and emotional catharsis. That fixation results in truly unforgettable sequences like Buell instructing the actors to close their eyes and imagine a favorite place they’d like to be. The realistically restrained but emotionally raw testimony that follows is mesmerizing to witness.

It can be easy to dismiss the importance of art in a society that often doesn’t see it as “valuable”. But Ethan Hawke was dead-on. We need art to survive. We need art to process emotions that can otherwise overwhelm us. Those same things also apply to the importance of connections with others. Sing Sing is a cinematic testament to both essential ingredients of existence. Where would any of us be without art or loved ones to cope with the world? The characters of Sing Sing certainly understand that. Viewers will remember that truth too once they experience this remarkable and deeply human motion picture.