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HBO's O.G., Starring Jeffrey Wright, Is a Masterful Portrait of Prison Life

Paste Magazine | February 22, 2019 | Amy Glynn

A man who’s committed a terrible crime faces a daunting re-entry into the world outside the walls. In prison he’s been a force, a guy who runs the place. He’s also been a penitent who wishes he could take it all back, and who’s learned the hard way to focus on “dignity, self-respect, and grace,” as he tells a newbie he finds under his wing. But we know, and so does he, that the power dynamics are about to change when he has to reintegrate.

An ode to the tight close-up, Madeleine Sackler’s film O.G. stars Jeffrey Wright as Louis, an incarcerated man at the end of a 24-year prison term in Indiana. For anyone who has been reading my possibly tiresome rants on Repetitive Re-adaptation Disease, I just want to say this is an example of what I mean when I beg the universe to greenlight something original. With a strong performer or two, a modicum of attention to scripts and camera angles and whatever “sensibility” is, you can present a riveting visual story for a pretty modest budget. This thing’s just beautiful. I don’t know what else to call it.

Shot in an active maximum-security prison and with many incarcerated men and prison staff taking their first turn in front of the camera, O.G. is nonetheless not about filming less-than-conventional actors in a gimmicky way; it’s naturalistic and tempered and organic. It’s committed to a plot-by-accretion, character-driven style, but it’s spare, tightly paced, and contains zero beard-stroking nonsense. It’s visually sophisticated, with subdued colors and bright panes of sunlight and beautifully rendered transitions and lavish close-ups. (Wright does a majority of the acting without saying a word.) There is lovely, measured, intelligent use—and manipulation—of sound, muting background chatter in a way that ironically amplifies one’s focus on it, or zeroing in on one sound element to create a sense of tension or hypervigilance or anger or confusion. Louis, under a veneer of detached calm, is in fact a pretty emotional man. He cares. About his family. About the pain he caused someone else’s family. About doing better, being better. He’s not a bodhisattva; there’s tremendous anger in him, and resentment, and wrath and defensiveness and humiliation. And, it seems—as his release draws closer and as he agrees to a confrontation with his victim’s sister—considerable fear he would rather not make visible. Fear of something happening to jeopardize his freedom, and perhaps greater fear of attaining it. This vivid emotional palette arises almost entirely between the lines in those amazing, lingering shots of Wright’s face.

O.G. is an even-handed film in which the eruptions of violence in prison are not handled in a macho determination to be “edgy” or “gritty” or sensationalistic, and because of that it feels realistic. It’s keen-eyed and unflinching without giving in to the temptation to make everyone as bad as possible; even the authorities are human beings. Because of this, it holds the tragedy of squandered human potential up to the light. It doesn’t have a complicated plot, and because of that you can see how much is really going on. It eschews sentimentality and achieves genuine feeling. It is a delicate treatment of tough guys and a nonjudgmental look at a broken system, more focused on how men adapt to it than on taking audiences to school about why it’s unfair. The film assumes you know it’s unfair. It’s not going to bother patronizing you about it; it’s going to tell you a story about a decision that permanently altered the course someone’s life.

O.G. premieres Saturday, Feb. 23 at 10 p.m. on HBO.


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