Rise, fall and dramatic about-face of Crips gang co-founder and two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stan "Tookie" Williams calls for grander treatment than this 93-minute, basic-cable telefilm. "Redemption" makes for eminently watchable viewing, however, thanks in large part to the brilliant, career-defining lead performance by Jamie Foxx.
A correction was made to this review on Feb. 6, 2004.
The rise, fall and dramatic about-face of Crips gang co-founder and two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Stan “Tookie” Williams calls for grander treatment than this 93-minute, basic-cable telefilm. “Redemption” makes for eminently watchable viewing, however, thanks in large part to the brilliant, career-defining lead performance by Jamie Foxx. Scheduled for an April 11 bow on the FX network, pic and the publicity surrounding it should spark renewed debate over the death penalty and the specific case of Williams, who remains on California’s death row following a series of failed appeals.
“Redemption” signals a return to grittier form for actor-turned-director Vondie Curtis Hall, who followed up his fine debut pic, the Tupac Shakur-starrer “Gridlock’d,” by making the Mariah Carrey debacle “Glitter.” Yet, pic remains a respectable but uninspired movie biography that takes a fascinating true story and shoehorns it into a conventional mold.
Taking a page from the Richard Attenborough/Norman Jewison school of filmmaking, pic filters Williams’ extraordinary odyssey through the eyes of Barbara Becnel (Lynn Whitfield), a journalist who approaches Williams in the early 1990s in regard to a book she is writing about the Crips and how the once-local gang grew into a worldwide phenomenon.
The real Becnel (who co-produced this film) was instrumental in helping Williams publish the series of children’s books that permanently altered his public image and resulted in a third Nobel nomination, this time for literature. But here, as scripted by J.T. Allen, Becnel possesses precious little inner life, registering mainly as a screenwriter’s structural device.
Ostensibly used to offer a way to understand Williams, the character of Becnel instead keeps us removed from his experiences — something that even the talented Whitfield is unable to overcome through her performance.
Foxx, conversely, serves as a galvanizing force from the moment he first appears on screen, lecturing to a group of grade school children on a tour of San Quentin. A rock of Zen-like concentration, Williams can size up any room and the people in it with a few darts of his sad, weary eyes. He is keenly aware of how difficult it is to convince people of the extent of his conversion to a man of peace, yet deeply committed to discouraging others from following in his regrettable footsteps. And he is deeply distrustful of the media, as many journalists have ingratiated themselves to him, only to subsequently assassinate his character in print.
Pic unfolds primarily as a series of dialogues between the inmate and the journalist. Fleeting flashback scenes show a teenage Williams (well played by Brenden Jefferson, a dead ringer for Foxx) first meeting eventual Crips co-founder Raymond Washington and beginning to assemble the army of disenfranchised minority youths who will eventually unleash a bloody reign of terror on South Central Los Angeles through their ongoing war with rival gang the Bloods.
This is one of the most fascinating chapters in Williams’ life, and the one given shortest shrift by this particular film treatment.
But, as film’s title indicates, this pic concentrates on Williams’ transformation and uses his story to study broader issues of young black males’ search for identity, community and tangible father figures. The tendency of Hall and Allen to express these ideas through trite prison-as-life-altering-experience scenes that suggest a dinner theater production of “The Hurricane” or “Malcolm X.” Key moments, including a prison visit from Williams’ mother and the scenes involving the Nobel committee, should have been more affecting but are undermined by performances that fail to measure up to the commitment of Foxx’s perf.
Visually, pic is ambitious by tube standards, with Hall and d.p. David Greene bringing a unique color palate and stylization to each of the various locations and time periods. Early San Quentin scenes seem filtered through sun and dust, while the flashbacks to Williams’ youth have the texture and consistency of faded denim.