Jeffrey Wright, the most compelling reason to watch HBO’s new film “O.G.,” is among television’s best actors at switching between codes or manners of being. On “Westworld,” his timeline-toggling android swaps personae so delicately that his performance gains in resonance when recalled in retrospect. (Perhaps that’s why Wright has been so oddly underrated through the show’s first two seasons.) And, in the more earthbound “O.G.,” Wright plays a longtime prisoner who’s learned the ways to deal both with his captors and his fellow incarcerated men, but who faces the pressure of impending release. It’s a typically well-wrought performance in a film not quite built to hold it; the actor shows us new things about the plight of the individuals caught up in mass incarceration and given too few resources for life after, even as the film itself deals in heavy-handed and often obvious notes.
Wright’s Louis has been in prison for 24 years for a crime whose nature we eventually learn when Louis meets with the sister of its victim. The action of the film is twofold, as Louis checks boxes like that of attempting “restorative justice” with the woman affected by his crime as he prepares to leave prison, and simultaneously tries to pull a younger, newer inmate from falling into gang life. The first set of obligations is borne with grace but little eagerness; the restorative justice scene in “O.G.,” indeed, is notable for how it presents Louis, the film’s hero, in a complicated light, forcing him to reckon with the actual toll of his actions and his interlocutor’s belief he should be in prison for life. (He bears the criticism quietly, even meekly, only exploding when alone, later.) Attempts Louis makes to receive counseling or advice for his transition to the world outside are shut down, often in rather thuddingly obvious exchanges with those responsible for his well-being; the point that he can rely on no one to shepherd him to safety is made, again and again. Drawn with more subtlety is a mission towards which Louis puts more of his energy, trying to keep a charismatic, thoughtful young man (Theothus Carter) from falling into a life that too easily consumes inmates whole.
Director Madeleine Sackler made “O.G.” within an Indiana prison and cast it with many real inmates, including Carter, who remains incarcerated. This may have aided the production in ineffable ways, and certainly allowed compelling performers like Carter to surface. But it doesn’t materially affect the viewing experience. What the shooting location lends “O.G.” most of all is a wholesome sort of social merit, making it a project that is deeply worthy while not, moment-to-moment, compelling in the way art like this should be to motivate, startle, and move. Louis being denied the support that might help reduce the chances of recidivism, for instance, is sad and shameful, but dramatized with a cudgel rather than a deft pen. And Wright’s gifts at showing Louis’s knowledge as to how to shift his face moment-to-moment elides the fact that little that’s written for his character transcends prison-movie cliché, and as such pushes us away from understanding him better. It is welcome to see Wright onscreen in any context, and art confronting our national inability to support the prisoners we’re notionally meant to be reforming is needed. All that makes “O.G.” falling short of finding much new to say, or new ways to say it, feel like a missed opportunity. Access to the prison shooting location is where novelty ended, here, as within the locked gates Sackler couldn’t find an angle on her story.
A final note on Sackler, whose surname will likely be familiar to many readers: She is a director who has made documentaries for HBO and who won a news and documentary Emmy for her work on a piece about Belarus’s resistance movement. And she is a member of the Sackler family, whose patronage of the arts has come under increased scrutiny thanks to the ways in which they made their money. Members of the Sackler family own Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin, the drug perceived to have acted as an accelerant to the opioid crisis, and Madeleine’s father is currently a director there. Nan Goldin, an artist who went through rehab for opioid addiction and who has led an anti-Sackler-family movement, told the Guardian, after the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, that Sackler “presents herself as a social activist but she has been enriched through the addiction of hundreds of thousands of people.”
Does this mean “O.G.” is unworthy on its face? Well, no, not least because Sackler herself does not work at Purdue. But her voice is amplified by a position of social power whose origin is troubling, and that makes “O.G.’s” lack of urgency a bit more pernicious. Given all that those close to Sackler have done to impact our society, crimes that have almost certainly enriched the director herself, I found myself thinking, throughout, that the film needed more insight, more spirit of curiosity and provocation beyond its pious, vitamin-rich but ultimately inert and unsurprising take on prison, in order to justify its place. Activism of the sort “O.G.” sets out to be is at its most exciting when doing something other than simply establishing its bona fides. Such activism requires real commitment and, sometimes, divestment; it might require something approaching the restorative-justice work “O.G.” knows is the hardest sort of work to do. It necessitates being able to hear those who are angry at you instead of just starting a new conversation. “O.G.” presents a small-scale world in which what crimes occur are the result of benign neglect from people — overstretched prison employees, inmates too emotionally taxed to really grapple with their deeds — just doing their best with badly limited bandwidth. Sackler might not have to use too much imagination to think up a tale with graver moral stakes.
“O.G.” Airs Feb. 25, HBO. (Available on HBO streaming from Feb. 23 at 11:45 p.m. E.T.)
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Theothus Carter, William Fichtner
Executive Producers: Sharon Chang, Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Mark Steele, Nic Marshall