“In our industry, such an idea of what to expect from a prison story is ingrained,” says filmmaker Greg Kwedar, who hopes to change that narrative with the help of those whose stories have been misrepresented.
Kwedar’s feature towards Toronto Singing Singing The focus is on the “Rehabilitation Through the Arts” (RTA) program, which is run in the prison of the same name and in which inmates produce and perform in stage productions. The story centers on the real-life friendship between RTA graduates John “Divine G” Whitfield (portrayed by Colman Domingo) and Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, who plays himself. The film depicts the bond that develops between the men as they try to decide which play to perform next. Aside from a few professional actors, including Domingo and Oscar nominee Paul Raci, Singing Singing is populated by formerly incarcerated artists, most of whom are graduates of the RTA program.
The filmmaker initially went to a maximum security prison while he waited for his directorial debut. Transpecos, to bow at SXSW in 2016, and helped a friend make a short documentary about prison life. During filming, he saw an inmate in a cell with a rescue dog participating in a popular prison program that pairs incarcerated people with puppies and dogs to train. While researching other prison rehabilitation programs, Kwedar came across a program from 2005 esquire Article “The Sing Sing Follies,” a story about the RTA programs performing an original play at New York’s infamous Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Since learning about the program, Kwedar has participated in several RTA stage productions, most recently a staging of Twelfth Nightand gave workshops to participants.
“We never want to come into a world and have it feel transactional, but rather an exchange,” says Kwedar, who co-wrote the film with his co-star Clint Bentley Singing Singingemploys what they call “community-based filmmaking.” In this sense, they try to include real locations and people in their films. For her 2021 Sundance feature jockeywhich landed outside the festival at Sony Pictures Classics and had a small but respectable awards show, they shot on a working racetrack and surrounded star Clinton Collins Jr. with real racehorses.
For Singing SingingKwedar spent seven years developing the story with Maclin, Whitfield, RTA leadership and volunteers. Singing Singing Filming took place at Downstate Correctional Facility, a prison in the Hudson Valley that was decommissioned just months before production. Filming took place over three weeks in July 2022 and Downstate, like most American prisons, had no air conditioning. “When you’re there 14 hours a day, you realize there’s no ventilation. There is barbed wire outside every window and it suffocates every room you are in. It goes deep under the skin. “You can feel the ghosts in the walls,” says the director. Domingo had to enlist the help of a production assistant to navigate the hallways: “It’s designed for you to get lost. It really does something to your mind.”
Since Downstate was New York State’s main detention center, the location represented a whole different kind of potential discomfort for the cast. “We shot in a prison that they had all been through,” explains producer Monique Walton. “Most of the cast had said they would never set foot in prison again or never wear greens again [the prison uniform] Again.” The filmmakers consulted a therapist who specialized in caring for the families of the detainees, who was made available to the cast. Walton says that the actors found filming a “cathartic experience” as the uniforms were redesigned into costumes and Downstate became a movie set that they left at the end of each day.
Domingo credits his stage partners with inspiring him to perform what he describes as “the most open and raw I’ve ever experienced.” You can’t lie. You can’t lie with these guys.” Before production, the actor, who is considered one of the first award winners with Netflix features, was well known Rustin, Maclin would call to help build their on-screen relationship. He added: “I didn’t think it was important to know why he was ever imprisoned. I wanted to be with the person he is today, knowing that the RTA program they are pursuing is true rehabilitation.”
Another aspect of the filmmaker’s “community-based” approach is the way cast and crew are compensated. “It is a model of equality for the entire cast and crew, with everyone receiving equal pay,” Walton explains. Simply put: everyone is working on it Singing Singing, from Domingo to production assistant, received the same rate — based on the weekly or daily SAG minimum salary, depending on how long they worked on the production — and each receives shares in the film. Says Kwedar, who uses a similar salary structure jockey“We’re trying to blur the line between talent above and below the line”
“It’s not a model I’ve heard of before,” says Domingo, who also serves as a producer on the film, noting how the pay structure ties into conversations surrounding the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, with increased profit sharing a key point the ongoing negotiations between the unions and the AMPTP. Domingo says the transparent compensation structure made a noticeable difference on set: “It wasn’t just a job for hire.”
Kwedar adds: “A traditional hierarchical compensation structure – where only a few at the top had all the ownership and were paid on a highly tiered basis – would find its way into the on-set experience.” had an honest appearance. It directly impacts storytelling. Everyone is actually a partner to an employee.” With Singing Singingthe filmmakers hope to prove the model’s viability.
As for RTA, current executive director Leslie Lichter hopes the film will help with possible expansion. Founded in 1996, RTA currently has only six prisons in New York State. According to the program, fewer than 5 percent of RTA members return to prison, compared to the national recidivism rate of 60 percent. “There are a lot of good people in prison who have made bad decisions or bad mistakes,” Maclin said. “I know what I know and I have seen what I have seen. And I know good people when I see them. [Sing Sing] gives a different picture of what a prisoner is.”