HomeTelevisionThe O.G.: Jeffrey Wright Gives a Locked-Down Performance for HBO

The O.G.: Jeffrey Wright Gives a Locked-Down Performance for HBO

The O.G.
Photo Credit: HBO

By Michael Vacchiano

Documentary filmmaker Madeleine Sackler makes her full-length feature debut with O.G., the latest project to be released by HBO Films. While the story is fictional, the movie is set and takes place in an actual maximum-security prison in Indiana. This is amongst the many elements that Sackler incorporates to make the experience more authentic. Trying to combine Shawshank and Scared Straight, so to speak, is definitely intriguing but sadly, the concept does not completely work. Fortunately, longtime supporting player Jeffrey Wright (in a rare leading role) keeps everything together with an incredible and magnetic performance.

Wright plays veteran inmate Louis Menkins, a man who has spent half his life locked up in the real-life Pendleton Correctional Facility. After serving over 24 years for a robbery and murder, Louis is now only just a few weeks away from getting out on parole based on good behavior. He spends his peaceful days as a model prisoner exercising, studying and reading books, and working in the prison autobody garage.  On the cusp of his release, Louis, however, soon wrestles with problems, both external and internal, that could jeopardize his chances of getting “on the outside.”

Despite being mostly amicable and friendly with his fellow inmates, as well as the prison workers, Louis used to run with and lead the facility’s biggest gang in his earlier years behind bars. Because of his respected status as an “O.G.”, Louis is soon tasked by a corrections worker (William Fichtner) to help uncover any gang-related business that may be brewing. He must do so by befriending the newly locked up Beecher, a young man who is the prison gang’s latest recruit. Louis is obviously reluctant as he does not want to risk his opportunity at freedom. Upon seeing shades of himself in Beecher, however, he soon feels an obligation to help steer the rookie inmate from going even further down the wrong path as he once did.

With O.G., Sackler filmed everything in realistic surroundings, as previously mentioned. This includes not only the facility where the movie takes place, but also the people therein. All of the background players and extras are actual inmates, prison guards, office workers, etc. of the operational Pendleton. Sackler also worked with these inmates to create the documentary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It, a companion piece that focuses on her helping to teach these men the art of filmmaking as well as insight into their everyday lives (soon to be available through HBO).

The coup de grace of Sackler’s true-to-life method with O.G. is Theothus Carter, who plays the hardened yet naïve Beecher. Currently scheduled to be incarcerated until 2051, Carter is essentially playing an extended version of himself as the young prisoner whom Louis takes under his wing. It definitely extends the novelty of Sackler’s approach by casting an actual criminal to play opposite her lead. While he may be an acting novice, Carter does have decent chemistry with Wright, and the two do establish a believable mentor/mentee relationship.

While I applaud Sackler for her ambition and gusto in trying to merge fiction with reality, the plotline mostly tends to flow at a glacial pace. In other words, viewers expecting a Morgan Freeman-esque narration to help move this prison story along will be disappointed. O.G. is more of a slow-burn character study that presents the everyday rituals of life in the penitentiary. The lack of excitement or “rising action” moments in the film, so to speak, does tend to stall Louis’s personal journey on more than one occasion. I always felt informed because of the movie’s art-imitating-life process, but I didn’t always feel entertained.

Luckily, O.G. is saved by an amazing performance from leading man Wright, who is undoubtedly the best part of the film. The seasoned and Emmy-winning actor has been a staple of HBO programming for well over a decade (Angels in America, Boardwalk Empire, Westworld), and the network provides him with an excellent showcase yet again. Wright brings his usual stoic gravitas to the role, but is also able to make Louis more than just a stereotypical reformed prisoner who thinks he has learned his lesson. Struggling with his dilemma, Louis has outbursts of rage and fits of paranoia in one scene, as well as solemn moments of self-reflection in the next.

The aforementioned internal conflict that Louis grapples with is the fear and uneasiness he is feeling upon his impending release. When it comes to intense vulnerability, Wright excels yet again here as he really gets under the skin of the character. He is afraid and hesitant to face the outside world after being locked up for so long. During a conversation with his soon-to-be parole officer (Boyd Holbrook) to discuss potential job prospects, Louis has very little to contribute as he is genuinely unsure of his plans when he is once again a civilian.

The most powerful scene in O.G. is perhaps Louis’s last session with the prison’s grief counselor (Mare Winningham). When discussing his rehabilitation, Louis comes face-to-face with the sister of the man he killed all those years ago. Wright shines yet again as his character expresses his remorse and shame over his actions, despite believing that he isn’t worth forgiveness and knowing that his words will never erase the woman’s pain. Louis is humble and sincere even though he feels that maybe he does not deserve a chance at redemption. Through it all, Wright plays Louis as a man trying to survive his days with “dignity, self-respect, and grace,” as the character himself states.

O.G. does have some shortcomings, mainly a few random parts in the story in which the action tends to drag. Documentarian Madeleine Sackler needs to be commended, however, for taking some risks and blending realistic elements of the prison system into her work of fiction. While her first foray as a feature director is far from perfect, she fortunately gets a wonderful performance from Jeffrey Wright to make the whole experience worth seeing. Because of him alone, O.G. is better than just OK.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The O.G. is now airing on HBO and its subsidiary channels as well as HBO GO and HBO NOW.


Most Recent

Stay Connected