Civil Brand might think that it carries an inspiring message about courage, hope, and sacrifice, but it's really nothing more than pieces of other movie's messages pasted together. Civil Brand wants to be The Shawshank Redemption, Last Dance, and The Green Mile, but instead comes off as made-for-TV fare, which is no surprise given the fact that director Neema Barnette has helmed nothing but. To call it preachy would be an understatement; the film wants to be a rowdy, boisterous bible-thumping preacher from the south -- and it has the energy and conviction to be one -- but it forgets to bring an original sermon to the altar.
As Frances Shepard (Lisaraye) enters Whitehead Correctional Institute -- a maximum-security prison for women -- she does not fit in with her fellow inmates, who are hardened criminals, drug-addicts, and murderers. She was a young mother and nurse, but after accidentally killing her abusive husband, she was convicted of murder. Fellow prisoner Little Momma (Lark Voorhies) -- 17 years old and pregnant, and also the prison's resident preacher -- quickly befriends and informs her that she's just joined the most lucrative businesses in the country: the prison industrial complex.
Little Momma and her friends, an assortment of convicts including Nikki Barnes (N'Bushe Wright), Aisha Nance (Tichina Arnold), Sabrina (DaBrat), and Wet (Monica Calhoun), are overseen by the abusive Captain Deese (Clifton Powell), who treats the women like slaves -- sex slaves, that is. After long hours of working in the prison sweatshops, and an occasional beating, they can relax with Deese in his office... or rather, they can relax Deese in his office.
The women eventually reach their limit of abuse and mistreatment, so they strike up an alliance with a young law student (Mos Def) who works part time as prison guard. Together, they unravel the obvious fact that cheap labor -- not rehabilitation -- is the primary objective at Whitehead, and design a scheme to end the prison's injustice.
After 80 minutes of stomach-churning dialogue and contrived narration, Civil Brand finally takes flight. But by this point, it's too late -- the audience has already lost interest in these characters, thanks in part to the annoying narration. This movie doesn't settle for voice-overs, however. Instead, the characters actually look into the camera and talk directly to the audience. That technique has worked before -- like in the romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game -- but that movie didn't take itself so seriously. Here, the technique almost gives the film a comedic tone, but Civil Brand doesn't want to be a comedy; it wants to be a thought-provoking message movie.
The most evident problem with Civil Brand lies within Preston A. Whitmore II and Joyce Renee Lewis's script. The prisoners look the same, sound the same, and act the same; in fact, it's often difficult keeping them straight. The most interesting characters in the movie are, ironically, the evil prison guard, Deese, and the warden. The audience might hate them, but at least they trigger some emotional response.
Although Reed R. McCants and Clifton Power fuel the warden and Deese with striking performances, the remainder of the acting in the film is pathetic. This is not surprising either considering that many members of the cast are rappers, such as MC Lyte, Da Brat, and Mos Def. Hollywood still doesn't seem to understand that just because someone can sing doesn't necessary mean they can act. If this movie doesn't prove that point, nothing will.
Civil Brand might not be as bad as it sounds. It's easily digestible, has a smooth texture, and doesn't require audiences to exercise a single molecule of their brains. Neema Barnette directs with a cutting edge, and she does show promise with a vast arsenal of unconventional slow motion, fast motion, and stop-motion camera techniques. But the movie feels far too recycled to surpass the "been-there, done-that" experience. It's just another movie that wants to tell a message that's already been told.
The civil brand is Singer.