The story of 23-year-old African-American Greg Yance, played with touching restraint by Omar Epps, and his trials as a first-time convict make an absorbing if troubling telefilm for sharp director Charles S. Dutton, who doesn’t miss a detail. Daniel Therriault’s teleplay may have its fits and starts, and may sputter out before its time, but “First-Time Felon” reaches for the heart.
Chicagoan Greg, whose mother (Robin Vaughn) brooks no nonsense but does try to encourage her son, mixes around with bad types and finds himself in the hoosegow for selling drugs with his friend Pookie (Jo. D. Jonz). Sentenced to a five-year pen stay among longtime losers, Greg as a first-time felon gets to opt instead for a really rough four-month “impact and incarceration” course, an experimental attempt to straighten out inexperienced prisoners who might have a chance in society.
Under the thumb of tyrannical Sgt. Calhoun (Delroy Lindo), Greg and 17 others head into a hazing endurance setup in which mostof them struggle through discipline and physical training; it’s supposed to make men of them.
Telefilm falters because the characters around Greg and his family are all fictional, which waters down what could have been a more intense drama. His associations with fellow prisoners don’t ring as true or as fulfilling as they might if they were based on factual people; more, the vidpic’s conclusion doesn’t dramatize how a determined Greg accomplished what he’s supposed to have done in real life.
Does Calhoun exist? And does the gutsy woman Capt. McBride (Rachel Ticotin) really live? Does Sam Tyrone (Treach), who becomes Greg’s buddy after they’re forced to carry a log around for 24 hours, really have such trouble with the outfit? Most important, was there a real Pookie, his colorful, trouble-making pal on the outside?
But there’s excellent investigation of how Greg and his friends cope as blacks in a white-oriented world and how, in fact, they, as blacks, cope among themselves. There are important issues here, and they beg to be explored even more fully.
Storyline has Greg and his integrated outfit going to help out a white town facing a Mississippi flooding. Combo of integrated convicts and free white Southerners adjusting to one another offers a critical opportunity, and one of the more dramatic moments occurs when Greg steps into a hotel room with a loaded revolver; nothing’s phony there.
Joseph Vitarelli’s score is often moving, and Jeffrey Jur’s impressive lensing combined briefly with National Geographic footage reflects the storm’s dangers. Production designer Guy Barnes, using 1,400 hand-tied, sand-filled burlap sacks, makes the levee scenes realistic, and the street scenes both earlier and later look A-OK.