This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor, writer and poet Saul Williams. Williams newest role is in the film “Akilla’s Escape” directed by Charles Officer. One of the foremost spoken word poets, Williams is also known for his breakout role in the 1998 film “Slam.” Williams tells The Treatment he wished more films today told stories of migration from countries such as Haiti and Jamaica to North America, as “Akilla’s Escape” does. He says it was a challenge to score a film that he also starred in. And Williams says that in spite of his verbal dexterity, he often gravitates toward people who can sit with silence.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is actor, director, writer, poet Saul Williams, who's been away from movies for too long a time now, almost 10 years. His new film is "Akilla's Escape" written and directed by Charles Officer. And the last thing I saw you do was "Aujourd'hui," which is a remarkable movie, in a lot of ways, like "Akilla's Escape," in which these are two guys who have made a decision about how they're going to be lonely.
Saul Williams: It's true, I was just thinking of the connection between the two films myself also because there's so much interior work as an actor, that the films called on in terms of trusting that the camera is catching what's going on inside of the character's mind because there are not so many words.
KCRW: Talking about "Akilla’s Escape:” the fact that it really boils down the politics of his home. It gives this really kinetic origin story at the same time we see him in movement as an adult, and I just wondered if that stuff was on the page with these conversations you had with Charles [Officer] and talking about what the movie is going to be because it really sets the movie apart; it makes it about this kind of PTSD of being from another culture and being acculturated into America as a person of color.
Williams: My conversations with Charles definitely centered around migration. His family migrated to the US and Canada from Jamaica. My family migrated to the US from Haiti, and not enough stories are told about that migration experience in relation to North America, and the Caribbean. The way that these realities are handed down through families and over generations play a great role in our lives, but we don't necessarily see that reflected in cinema. And so what I appreciate about what Charles and Wendy Motion Braithwaite, who wrote the screenplay with Charles, put together was that, yes, it was deeply embedded in the script, this sense of connection to the world of our parents and how our parents prepared us for the world that they brought us to.
KCRW: Also really interesting is the nuanced and indirect way the film sets up the story of the Jamaican posses.
Williams: The opening of the film, which contextualizes the story in the broader spectrum of Jamaican history, in relation to the war on drugs, and gangs and then that connection that inspired Charles to make that connection with the character Akilla's father. It's called the Garrison Gang in the film. To make those connections also points to a sort of lineage because the film circles around family and so there's the idea of family, like the immediate family, but also our street family, the gangs and the groups that we choose to identify with.
KCRW: When [Akilla’s] asked his name, and he's there being interrogated by that cop and that officer who's there to make sure that he's not being persecuted, he clearly is. That scene is about that kind of paternalism that Jamaica had, and I just thought, there's so much ground covered in the first 10 minutes of the movie. I've never seen anything quite like this before. To see these kinds of skills demonstrated from a filmmaker of color must have been thrilling to you.
Williams: It was extremely thrilling. I've known Charles for well over 20 years. I met him when my first film as an actor, "Slam," premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and he told me then, I'm a filmmaker and Yo, I'm trying to work with you. And over the years touring as a musician, as a poet, anytime I was in Toronto, we would break bread and give updates on what we were working on and he was always saying, Yo, I'm gonna find that thing for us. And so about two years ago, when I received the script from him and the offer, it really warmed my heart to see that idea come back around, like we're gonna do this. Then to see the way that his storytelling has evolved, it's really rich.
And then I was honored for him to say...well, first I was kind of perturbed by it, but say, I also want you to work on scoring the film. And that threw me off a bit just because I was focusing as an actor, and I had never thought of scoring the film that I was in. But you know, that's the position that sometimes your friends put you in?
KCRW: Well, he's a good friend, obviously. But you had never thought about scoring a film before?
Williams: I've been working on a musical called "Neptune Frost" where I'm collaborating with my wife and partner Anisia Uzeyman. It's a musical, but we're not in it. Charles is a friend, but this is the first non personal approach in terms of scoring a film that I had. It put me in a position of receiving edits of the film with me in it and having to put music on top of that and sort of detach myself.
I had begun collaborating with Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack and suddenly realized that the work that we were playing around with in our spare time really could belong to this film and add some suspense, some depth. And when I shared that idea with Charles, he was blown away by it. So it did come together synergistically, but initially, I was thrown by it.
KCRW: You've been asked by directors to do something that's really kind of antithetical to the way most of us think about you, which is this incredibly verbal person who's actually using his gifts as a poet and as a rapper in real time to deal with things, and you've had to play these characters who really don't express themselves in speech a lot.
Williams: When I was approached by Alan Gomis, and I read the script “Aujourd'hui,” it read like a novel. A great deal of the descriptives in the script is describing what the character was seeing and thinking about. And so immediately, I was back to my acting classes at NYU, thinking about all of the mask exercises that we could do and all of the mind techniques that we would practice, and I'm like, Oh, my gosh, finally, the stuff that we were doing in class, it has a role in life! It's a challenge that I loved being given the opportunity to face.
It is clear that sometimes, like after a film like "Slam," that the limits of the imagination in the cinema industrial complex are like, Oh, you played a great drug dealer, I have another drug dealing role for you, and if it's not that, it's a cop or a doctor. In "Akilla," it's the first time I ever touched a gun in my life, to play this character. I also went through like seven months of physical training, which was a great excuse to get in shape. So those sorts of things are wonderful for me, and I love when a director approaches me, thinking beyond the idea of, oh, you're a great poet, I have this idea of this homeless man that passes by and says something wise to my main character, would you do it? You'd be surprised at the number of times somebody said that to me, for real.
KCRW: What's fascinating about these two movies you're talking about, but especially "Akilla's Escape," is both characters make a decision about their relationship to mortality because it's imminent in the ways that it is for somebody who lives a life that Akilla does. I wonder if that's part of this too, because it's the danger of being Black, whether you're in continental North America or someplace else.
Williams: It's true that the role that mortality plays in "Akilla's Escape" and "Aujourd'hui" is right in front of you. It's going on in the character's head, and they're weighing the consequences with every breath and every step, and it is a true reflection of the choices that we are forced to make.
Sometimes, we don't have a choice, when we are born with this skin, in this society. Just a few minutes ago, driving home, I had a cop car behind me, and my life flashes before my eyes, just in the mirror instance of a cop car that's pulled up behind me. I didn't get stopped, get pulled over. They eventually changed lanes and drove past me. But I'm there like, Holy ----. What's happening? It's always there. It's always present.
KCRW: Tell us what "Akilla's Escape" is about.
Williams: It is the story of a middle aged man who has a business growing weed and providing that weed to distributors in Toronto. He has essentially decided that it's time for him to get out of the business now that weed has become legal and the government is stepping in. He doesn't want to necessarily be in that business anymore. He thinks that the next step is going to be like the Starbucks of weed. And just as he's making that decision, he's faced with a few realities.
KCRW: I find myself thinking about the way he enters a room where he's in so many situations, and once he steps into that room, he's becoming a character.
Williams: So many of our choices, as actors, come from lived experience. And it's true that, as people of color, as men, so many of our choices are performative. There is a way that I am at home; there is a way that I am in a meeting at CAA. I try to keep the through line between those two things as thorough and seamless as possible, but there is more of a protective stance that I might take outside of the home than I do inside of it. And so sometimes we find ourselves guarding against certain things, guarding against others’ perceptions of us, or being fully aware of the perception that people may have of us.
There is something certainly about Akilla, as a character and what he's aware of because he's made very different decisions, for example, than his father, and he had a very clear perception of his father. And he made some very strong choices in his life in relation to his father. I think that's true for a lot of men as well, that decision of: is that what I'm trying to be? Or will I make sure that every choice that I make in life is to show that I'm not that? Or is it that you grow through time and eventually say, I understand how they became that way? So yeah, I think as a character, Akilla is clearly operating with all of those wheels in motion, and calculating the distance between what he was raised exposed to and who he would like to be.
KCRW: I wonder if working with Allain Gomis and then with Charles Officer appealed to this sense of adventure, this appetite that we get from hearing your poetry?
Williams: What I like about both of those men as individuals, because of course, I've spent time with them away from the set, is they are unlike me. I'm a performer. They're hesitant to get on stage; I have no hesitancy about getting on. They're the type of guys that I like to sit and talk to because they're great thinkers, great intellectuals. They're great observers of people, of character. I do have an affinity to the silent type. I guess spending so much time on the road and on stage, when I'm not there, it's not as if I actually have a lot to say. I'm more in the realm of: I have a lot to think about. And I guess that's what I have in common with them. And that's what I appreciate about them is that we share all the things that we've been thinking about, but there's a great silence that we share as well.
I have a friend Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, who also has a love of words and will talk non stop. He's full of jokes. He's always talking to me. I really don't feel like talking until I have something to say.
KCRW: You shot this before the world changed the way that it did, but there's this kind of existential dread in the movie that's a part of Black life that's now a part of life for everybody. Just seeing the movie a couple of weeks ago, it feels like it's actually consonant with the times in a way that nobody could have predicted.
Williams: It's certainly there. When we think of the world's response to the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we can go back and talk about Yusef Hawkins, Tawana Brawley, Ahmaud Arbery, Emmett Till. That existential dread, unfortunately, is also a part of Black life, and so even though the times conspire for it to be on the tip of our tongues more, for those of us, where it's truly a lived experience, it's always been there the same way it's been ever present in my poetry, and it's been ever present in the work of Charles.