Louis Menkins has spent half his life in a maximum-security prison in Indiana.
Now Louis is just weeks away from being released — but he’s filled with apprehension about finding a place in the outside world, and he finds himself at the red-hot center of an escalating conflict within the penitentiary, even though all he wants to do is avoid trouble in these last days before he becomes a free man.
The brilliant Jeffrey Wright plays Louis in the HBO movie “O.G.,” and it is one of the finest performances of his career. Wright can convey a world of emotions with a barely perceptible shift in facial expressions — but when moment calls for it, he can shift gears and pin us to our seats with his fiery intensity.
Filmed at the Pendleton Correctional Facility near Indianapolis and featuring inmates as actors and extras, “O.G.” is a work of fiction and yet is almost unsettling in its authenticity.
Director Madeleine Sackler does a magnificent job of plunging us into this world, in which inmates are almost always seeing things through the bars of their cells, or the tiny windows giving them a glimpse of the sky. Doors and gates are forever opening and closing. Even relatively quiet moments are punctuated by the sounds of somebody yelling, or someone blasting music in the distance.
Wright’s Louis has long held standing as a significant but relatively level-headed gang leader in the prison community. Even after Louis has relinquished his power as he eyes parole, the veteran Investigator Danvers (William Fichtner) brings Louis into his office for a respectful discussion about brewing conflicts between STG’s (Security Threat Groups), aka rival gangs, in the Indiana penal system. (Not that Louis would ever snitch on anyone.)
Louis becomes something of a mentor to a young inmate named Beecher (played by Theotus Carter, an inmate at Pendleton) and tries to steer Beecher from becoming a key player in an impending conflict that could go horribly wrong.
And yet even as Louis continues to command respect among fellow inmates as well as prison officials, when he meets with his slick and dismissive parole officer (Boyd Holbrooke), he gets a glimpse of how he’ll be treated in the outside world.
“So you’re comfortable with reading and writing and all that?” says the parole officer without even looking at Louis.
Not that “O.G.” portrays Louis as some sort of noble, wrongfully imprisoned, misunderstood anti-hero. Just because Louis and other inmate characters are portrayed as three-dimensional human beings doesn’t mean the film ever comes across as a bleeding-heart liberal indictment of the criminal justice system.
No. We learn Louis has been incarcerated for nearly a quarter-century because he killed a man. He did it. He’s guilty. He DESERVED this sentence. A scene in which Louis meets with the victim’s sister (Stephanie Barry), who wants to at least try to forgive Louis, is devastatingly effective in reminding us of who the real casualties are in the tragedy that put Louis behind bars.
In the meantime, Danvers tells Louis that if he isn’t forthcoming with any information about the seemingly inevitable and almost violent trouble about to explode at any minute, Louis will be guilty of conspiracy and will wind up spending the rest of his life behind bars. And there’s the very real possibility Louis will sacrifice his future in order to give the young Beecher at least a shot at a second life.
“I’ve tried to use these years here to be a better human being,” says Louis at one point, when his freedom is so close he can almost touch it.
We believe him. But we still don’t know which path he’ll choose in those final, potentially life-changing moments before his release.
Such is the stuff of great drama.
HBO Films presents a film directed by Madeleine Sackler and written by Stephen Belber. Running time: 110 minutes. Debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO and available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.