Civil Brand (2002) is a woman in prison film. Though I'm the kind of viewer that leans toward the likes of Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 or The Bamboo Dollhouse, I'm more than fair game for a thoughtful prison film. Unfortunately this is neither a fun exploitation ride or a deep drama- it is just a predictable ride.
Frances (Lisa Raye- The Players Club) is sent to the Whitehead Correctional Institute to serve her time after murdering her abusive husband. The timid Frances must adjust quickly to her new environment and inmates ranging from the kind Lil' Momma to the hardened Nikki (N'Bushe Wright- Dead Presidents). Frances finds that Whitehead is a privately owned prison run more like a sweatshop rather than a reformatory with more attention paid to the prisoners working long hours over their rehabilitation. All of this is overseen by the eyes of the heartless Captain Deese, a man who abuses his power in every way possible, taking liberties with the women both as a work force and as sex toys. The women eventfully have enough, rebel, and find a sympathetic ear in a young law student, Michael (Mos Def) who is paying the bills by moonlighting as a guard.
Ultimately, it is just a thin film all around. The acting ranges from the competent, to predictable, to stereotyped. Mos Def may be a fine rapper and nimble lyricist, but he slogs through the movie like a drugged rhino. He appears like he has just awoken from a coma when the word "Action!" was yelled. There is just little surprise and the characters are one- dimensional, which would have been if they took a blacksploitation/exploitation route. But, for a serious drama, Deese is too cartoonishly evil to not get some kind of third act comeuppance. Lil' Momma is too pure to not be sacrificed to further the plot. And the film so squarely focuses on Frances and Nikki, that despite some initial resistence, you know they will team up to fight the system together.
Director Neema Barnette helms with a pretty bland, pedestrian hand. The low budget affair isn't aided very much by her choices in framing, editing, or enriching the actors, and I found little surprise in the fact that her resume is mainly tv work like Diagnosis Murder, The Cosby Mysteries and 7th Heaven because it felt like a tv movie. She really lacks the dynamic dramatic punch or grit that the film needs and that someone like a prime Sidney Lumet could have added to the story.
Exposing the seedier side of privatized prisons is a good idea for a film, but the screenplay has little dramatic weight or character depth. Co-writers Joyce Lewis and Preston A Whitmore (who was responsible for the abysmal Vietnam flick The Walking Dead) throw in a reference to the HBO prison series Oz with Deese telling Michael something like "This isn't Oz" or "What, do you think this is Oz?" Well, since Civil Brand chooses the same narrative device Oz uses, that of a sole prisoner addressing the viewer (in this case rapper Da Brat) and serving as the prisons mouthpiece, I was already thinking they were stealing a little from Oz's structure. In any event, it just further adds to the "been there, seen that" formulaic writing.
The DVD: Lion's Gate
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Okay, so as much as I want to harp on the image, I realize they weren't working with a huge budget and clearly they had to make due with limited sets and pretty basic photography. That said, the transfer is at least clean and appears to present the films elements the best one can expect. Colors and fleshtones are strong. Contrast is nice and deep. In trying to enhance the visuals, which consist mainly of blue/gray prison uniforms and walls- in other words, not much to look at- they throw in a black and white shot here and there.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Surround. The soundtrack consists of mainly hip hop. The films low budget is evidenced by some scenes with sloppy dialogue recording. The surround push really makes these things stick out more, but once again, bearing in the mind the budget, it is a forgivable factor and never becomes too bothersome.
Extras: Chapter Selections— Awards and Honors— Weblinks (dead when I checked them)— Coomentary by writer Neema Barnete and Co-Screenwiter Joyce Lewis.
Conclusion: Good intentions. Bad execution. At the most I'll give it a "rent it" for the curious. The transfer is fine, but dramatically I don't think it will be getting many spins on your DVD deck.