[Screen It]


(2000) (Hill Harper, Billy Dee Williams) (R)

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Drama: Convicted of rape and dying of AIDS while incarcerated, a prisoner maintains his innocence and deals with his estranged family while trying to earn his parole.
Alex Waters (HILL HARPER) is a 32-year-old man serving time in prison for rape, a crime he insists he didn't commit. Suffering from AIDS and dreaming of life outside the prison walls, Alex knows he'll die there if he isn't paroled, and thus spends time with prison psychiatrist Dr. Coles (PHYLICIA RASHAD) - hoping to get her recommendation for release -- when not trying to better educate himself.

Despite his proclamation of innocence, his sentence has put a strain on his relationship with his family. He has neither seen nor spoken with his parents, Henry (BILLY DEE WILLIAMS) and Lois (MARLA GIBBS), in five years, and rarely sees his older brother, Tony (OBBA BABATUNDÉ), who feels guilty about what's become of his sibling.

Thus, when Tony visits after a ten-month absence, Alex pleads for him to convince their parents to visit him. They eventually do, and while their reconciliation isn't anywhere near complete, he's happy that lines of communication have been reestablished between them. As he prepares for his parole hearing and is visited by a childhood friend, Felicia McDonald (RAE DAWN CHONG), who earlier traveled down her own path of self-destruction before ultimately being saved, Alex hopes that he'll be allowed another shot at life outside of prison with his family.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Current public opinion and various news reports to the contrary, life in prison probably isn't much of a cakewalk to those who are incarcerated. While that's not necessarily a bad thing - since it's supposed to be a deterrent -- the lack of freedom, controlled daily regimen and the fact that one is surrounded by other prisoners - some of whom clearly place no value on others' lives - obviously creates a stressful environment.

If one is innocent, the level and intensity of such conditions is no doubt heightened, mostly because one then doesn't even share the kinship of being a convict, who was framed by "the man" and "the system." Few people, except those immediately affected by it now or in the past, however, realize that the family and friends of those imprisoned are just as affected by such scenarios.

Some worry about the safety of their loved one or friend, while others feel guilty about not intervening sometime in the past or are angry at the person for committing a crime, being sent to jail and thus making them look bad in the eyes of their peers. This is particularly true for most such parents who sense that they failed in raising an upstanding and law-abiding son or daughter.

While many prison movies deal with life behind the bars and the societal prison structure, or involve the last ditch effort to stop an execution, not that many deal with the effects that imprisonment has on family dynamics. Sure, most involve or include some visitation scenes with distraught and/or angry family members, but few make that their primary focus.

That's the one refreshing element of "The Visit," a prison flick that deals with such familial strife. The first release from Urbanworld Films, the picture has the requisite elements to be an absorbing and even moving drama. Unfortunately, its pedestrian script, low budget look and feel, and laborious pace make the film feel more like a life sentence of watching an R-rated afternoon school special rather than the riveting and engaging film it could have been.

Adapted from a stage play of the same name written by Kosmond Russell - who reportedly based it on his own relationship with his imprisoned brother - the effort feels like a filmed play, trapped within its own setting and limited scene locales. Although that somewhat works on a symbolic level since the protagonist is not only imprisoned by the State but also by his negative attitude, the film nevertheless feels dreadfully slow and often inert.

Had a wordsmith such as playwright turned filmmaker David Mamet written the script, the overall effect may have been different. Yet, first-time writer/director Jordan Walker-Pearlman is no Mamet and the film suffers accordingly, with flat dialogue substituting for what should have been some electric material.

It also doesn't help that the filmmaker occasionally uses an odd and distracting technique of repeatedly fading out and back in during the same scene. Used to note the passage of time within any individual scene, it ultimately serves to interrupt the dramatic flow and remove the viewer from the proceedings.

It also demonstrates what seems to be the filmmaker's inability to write and stage scenes that get the point across in one motion, rather than having to break it up and/or stretch it across several "mini-scenes." While Walker-Pearlman may have some symbolic reason for using that cinematic effect, it really only gives the film more of a low budget and even somewhat unpolished look.

The basic story isn't without its problems either. The motivation for the prisoner's parents to visit him for the first time in five years seems contrived at best. The issue of AIDS would certainly seem to be the perfect catalyst for such a visit (and could add some conflicting emotions for all involved), but Walker-Pearlman simply settles for an unseen talk from the prisoner's brother as the motivational prod.

The ending also feels contrived and rushed (despite the slow pace) as if the filmmaker felt that he needed to wrap up the various loose ends with a satisfying conclusion (although we never learn the truth about two important elements - whether the prisoner committed the crime for which he's sentenced and how he contracted AIDS - that are repeatedly brought up during the film).

In between those storytelling bookends, Walker-Pearlman should be lauded for avoiding most of the usual prison movie stereotypes. Yet, the fantasy sequences he stages in their place aren't as effective as one might like or expect, and the film never really manages to hit the deep, emotional notes that it should.

As far as the performances are concerned, Hill Harper ("The Skulls," "In Too Deep") is good as the bitter but somewhat hopeful prisoner, and Billy Dee Williams ("Batman," the second two "Star Wars" films) and Marla Gibbs ("The Brothers," TV's "The Jeffersons") deliver credible takes as his character's parents who have differing opinions of how he should be treated.

Rae Dawn Chong ("The Color Purple," "Quest For Fire") doesn't fare as well, but that's because her subplot isn't developed enough despite considerable screen time and because her character somewhat comes out of the blue (despite having the name dropped early on) and then commandeers the rest of the story. Phylicia Rashad ("Loving Jezebel," TV's "The Cosby Show") also can't do much with her conservative psychiatrist role.

While the film has a decent story to tell and benefits from some good performances, it never manages to shake its proscenium-based origins, slow pace and the lack of any honest emotional depth or resonance. "The Visit" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 17, 2001 / Posted April 20, 2001

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