In an industry where prison stories have become predictable and one-dimensional, filmmaker Greg Kwedar aims to challenge the narrative by amplifying the voices of those whose stories have been misrepresented. His upcoming feature film, “Sing Sing,” focuses on the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where inmates produce and act in stage productions. The movie highlights the real-life friendship between RTA alumni John “Divine G” Whitfield and Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, with Whitfield portrayed by Colman Domingo and Maclin playing himself. The majority of the cast, apart from a few professional actors, consists of formerly incarcerated performers who are alumni of the RTA program.
Kwedar’s journey into the world of prison rehabilitation began when he visited a maximum-security prison while awaiting the release of his directorial debut, “Transpecos,” in 2016. During this time, he assisted a friend in shooting a documentary on life inside the prison and witnessed the impact of programs that pair inmates with rescue dogs for training. This experience led him to discover the RTA program through a 2005 article in Esquire magazine titled “The Sing Sing Follies.” Intrigued by the program, Kwedar attended multiple RTA stage productions and even taught workshops to participants.
For Kwedar and his filmmaking partner Clint Bentley, community-based filmmaking is at the core of their approach. They strive to employ real locations and people in their films to foster an authentic exchange. Their previous film, “Jockey,” shot on a working racetrack and featured real-life racehorse jockeys alongside actor Clinton Collins Jr. In a similar vein, “Sing Sing” was filmed in Downstate Correctional Facility, a decommissioned prison in the Hudson Valley. The cast of formerly incarcerated actors found comfort in reframing the experience as a cathartic one, where the prison uniforms became costumes and the prison itself transformed into a film set.
Colman Domingo, who plays one of the lead roles and also serves as a producer, credits his scene partners with inspiring a performance that is honest and vulnerable. He focused on building a genuine connection with Clarence Maclin, emphasizing the person Maclin has become today rather than dwelling on his past mistakes. The Rehabilitation Through the Arts program’s mission of true rehabilitation resonated deeply with Domingo, shaping his portrayal of Whitfield.
Another innovative aspect of Kwedar and Bentley’s approach is their commitment to equality in compensation for the cast and crew. Everyone involved in the production, from actors to production assistants, received the same rate of pay based on SAG weekly or daily minimums. Additionally, everyone received equity in the film, erasing the traditional division between above-the-line and below-the-line talent. The transparent pay structure fostered a sense of partnership and ownership among the team, making it more than just a work-for-hire experience. This model challenges the hierarchical pay structures prevalent in the industry and aligns with ongoing conversations surrounding fair compensation within the entertainment unions.
Through their film “Sing Sing,” Kwedar and Bentley aim to showcase the viability of their community-based approach while shedding light on the effectiveness of the RTA program. Leslie Lichter, the current executive director of RTA, hopes that the film will bring attention to the program and potentially lead to its expansion. Founded in 1996, RTA currently operates in six prisons in New York State and has a recidivism rate of less than 5%, compared to the national average of 60%. The portrayal of the RTA program and its participants in “Sing Sing” challenges stereotypes and offers a different perspective on incarcerated individuals.
In an industry saturated with formulaic prison stories, Kwedar and his team are poised to break new ground with “Sing Sing.” By amplifying the voices of those most affected and implementing an inclusive and equitable approach to filmmaking, they hope to redefine the narrative surrounding prison stories and inspire positive change within the industry.