Saul Williams Tunes Into Receptive Audiences via ‘Akilla’s Escape’

Even the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t stop Saul Williams.

Williams is riding a film career surge: directing his first feature “Neptune Frost” and debuting his dream project “Akilla’s Escape” at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. The upcoming thriller, helmed by Charles Officer, stars the multi-hyphenate Williams as the titular Akilla, a Toronto-based drug dealer retiring from the business following marijuana’s legalization in Canada.

The outspoken activist has always worked to forge connections between political engagement and the arts, as heard in his albums “MartyrLoserKing” and “Volcanic Sunlight.” And “Akilla’s Escape” is another platform where he challenges the limit of Black stories told by the film and music industries. Variety spoke with the artist on the eve of the festival.

You studied acting, but you’re also a poet, rapper and songwriter. How do these experiences across genre influence your work as an actor?

My first love was acting. I realized early on that my ability to portray a character would only be enhanced by the development of my own personal character. So life experiences became important — traveling, becoming a parent and all of the stuff that I was exposed to through poetry and music enhance my understanding and my infancy as a person. So it’s all interconnected. It’s all helped mature me as an artist.

Why did you join “Akilla’s Escape?”

Since we met back in 1998, Charles always said, “If I ever find a way to do my dream project, I’m calling you.” When I was younger, I thought I might never get these sort of acting opportunities, because the type of stuff that I was being asked to do in film or television usually stood in conflict to what I thought was important in terms of political messaging.

Let’s talk about your role Akilla. He comes off as a confident, wealthy drug dealer, but he’s also juggling with an intergenerational trauma of domestic violence. How did you go about portraying this complex character?

Akilla’s not only exposed to the glorified aspects of gang life, but he is deeply moved by the part that isn’t glorified — like how people treat their wives, mothers, daughters. The fact that their father behaves this way with their mother and the idea of taking sides, the idea of choosing not to further the trauma and starting new and fresh, hoping to remain peaceful — that sort of mentality is something that resonated deeply with me.

What would you like the audience to walk away with from the film?

The film starts with one of my favorites, Bob Marley. Marley is a great example of someone who gets it — the music is there for entertainment, but there’s a level of political engagement that he makes undeniable for the listener. That sort of engagement, I wish for our audience for this film as well. I hope you walk away, not only changed by the way the bass affects your pelvis, but by the way the film affects you and your thinking and your reflections on life.

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