In 1998’s seminal film, Slam, Saul Williams plays Ray Joshua, an incarcerated poet who escapes his physical confines through the words he breathes life into. Freedom, rarely an unchallenged right for a Black man, is a subject Williams returns to in his latest on-screen role. As Akilla Brown, in the crime-noir Akilla’s Escape, he is forced to confront a cycle of generational violence he thought he’d left behind. How he does so plays out both onscreen, in Williams’ performance, and in the score he created for the film, together with Massive Attack’s 3D.
The movie, which is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, is the latest from Canadian director Charles Officer. It’s at the annual Canadian film fest where Williams and Charles first met, back in 1998, when Slam played there. They stayed in touch, and
when Officer sent Williams the Akilla’s Escape script, he was drawn to the subtlety and the narrative that unfolded through the writing. And to the fact that it was in the crime genre — something Williams is a big fan of.
Through stylized neon colors and moody soundscapes, the film unspools a story that remains pertinent to our times. Set against a background of political conflict in Jamaica, Williams’ character captures a teenager who’s been raised as a child-soldier of the streets, a pawn in the turf wars created by colonizers and political players. It’s a fate Williams’ Akilla escaped for himself but must now help the boy, who he sees his younger self in, do, too.
“We’re all born into a system that exists before we’re alive, that is both patriarchal and capitalistic,” Williams tells American Songwriter. “There’s always that question of, how much are we escaping within a lifetime? How much of it is out of our control, and have we made strong enough choices to truly escape the thing that we’re born into? Is it possible to escape or do you confront it head on?
Though he has a strong relationship to words and language, it’s the soundscapes Williams builds for the film that give Akilla’s Escape the heavy and foreboding atmosphere that pushes the story along, underscored by the questions it seeks to ask.
“That’s essentially what I do, I collect, in my musical creative process, soundscapes that eventually inspire words. And so it was very much part of the process,” he says. “The thing that was new was attaching those sounds to image.”
The process was not completely new for him — Williams scored Dreamstates in 2016, made by Anisia Uzeyman, his wife, and he’s currently working on his own film, Neptune Frost, a sci-fi musical. “The thing that was alarming, after we shot the film, and Charles sent me the rough edit, is that I had to disassociate myself from my performance and think big picture about the film. The first thing that stood out to me was how powerful music is, when placed to image. If you imply that something’s going to happen through sounds, even when it’s not, you can have the audience’s stomach in knots, like, ‘what the hell is about to happen?’”
Williams has always appreciated music’s ability to evoke emotion, and he’s had a cinematic approach to it that’s been evident from his first album, Amethyst Rock Star, where he would build tension through sound. Locking this into a genre film like the one Akilla’s Escape is was a perfect synergy for him. “The types of sounds I like fit, they fit into this. And that was really rewarding. I do think that we found some common ground between the soundscapes that we were playing with and the final product. I tried a lot of sound and we pulled back a lot of them, so to not overburden the film, but that still holds something in it and it drives the story in a particular way,” he says.
His collaboration with 3D, aka Robert Del Naja, came about after years of throwing ideas back and forth, in a mutual affinity for one another. Recently, Williams worked with Massive Attack on a track for their Eutopia audio-visual album, which came out in July. When Officer (himself a massive Attack fan) sent the script through, Williams thought some of what they’d been playing with could work for the film. “It made a lot of sense because of the idea of genre, the sort of sound and instrumentation that we were interested in — in terms of deep, heavy synths — and then how that can feed off of the idea of a crime noir. Not to mention, Massive Attack has always had roots in dub, and with this film it made a lot of sense.”
While he wanted to stick mostly with sound, there were some parts where Officer encouraged Williams to insert his voice, like in an early scene where Akilla is reflecting on his heavy-handed father and “Skin of a Drum” from his Niggy Tardust album plays underneath. “I understood exactly why, because in that song, lyric-wise, I’m contemplating my relationship with my father. I think it was too on the nose for me to see it, and so I think the collaborative process is also trusting at times. Like, ‘if you think so, if you think so, I have to take your word for that one.’”
They have created a film that’s urgent but not exaggerated, suspenseful but poignant where it needs to be. Like Williams’ work, which over the years has been peppered with literary references, Officer places books throughout Akilla’s Escape, a subtle hint of the potential for escape one can find within them. “Literary references and books are not only an escape, they’re a key,” says Williams. “They open doorways of perception and understanding…It’s a beautiful gift to give the viewer. Why not take advantage of the space that we have to reference something if you think it’s going to feed someone on their journey, especially when that is what this film is about — questioning how do we put an end to generational cycles of trauma and violence?” It’s a gift, as Williams knows, that brings with a freedom of its own kind.