This review was corrected on September 8, 2002.
Director Neema Barnette’s “Civil Brand” explores the disturbing trend of using cheap prison labor (almost exclusively African-American) to manufacture products and generate profits, comparing modern prisons to the plantations of the old South. Film explores the abuses rampant in woman’s prisons and the powerlessness of the inmates, while telling the uplifting story of one inmate, Frances (LisaRae), who overcomes her fear to lead the other inmates in their battle for reform.
With a cast that features platinum-selling rappers MC Lite and Da Brat, as well as Mos Def, who’s won critical acclaim in the Tony-winning “Top Dog, Underdog,” pic has good chance at solid niche B.O. When Frances, wrongly accused of murder, winds up in prison, she’s befriended by Little Momma (Lark Voorhies), part of a group fighting for prisoners’ rights. Overseen by the evil Captain Deese (a magnificent Clifton Powell), the prison subjects women to (off-screen) sexual abuse, beatings, and long hours of sweat-shop like conditions, since, as Warden Nelson puts it, “the workers can’t quit here!”
When Frances is told her baby — the only thing keeping her sane — has been murdered, she develops a plan to fight back with the help of a sympathetic part-time guard and law student Michael (Mos Def). When things go wrong, Frances takes over the prison with fellow inmates Wet (Monica Calhoun), and the hardened Nikki Barnes (N’Bushe Wright). A bloodbath ensues.
Tech credits are top notch.