The Visit
review by Elias Savada, 29 December 2000

Alex Waters is a embittered, confused thirty-three-year-old convict with three strikes against him. He's been imprisoned for five years twenty-five at the Union Grove State Penitentiary, found guilty for a rape he insists he didn't commit. A recovering crack cocaine addict, his body is now deteriorating from AIDS he has contracted under unrevealed circumstances. And he is estranged from his middle-class African-American family, particularly a stubborn, stern, and, perhaps, abusive father sarcastically unforgiving of the child-man who was once his pride and joy. Jordan Walker-Pearlman, wears the producer-director-writer stripes (he also co-edited) on this his first fiction feature (after the 1998 snowboarding documentary Snow Taxi -- unseen by this reviewer, but obviously nowhere close in intensity to his current effort). This very introspective piece is a concentrated vision of Kosmond Russell's play (inspired by a true story), barely letting the viewer escape beyond the claustrophobia of close-ups and two-shots. Like Alex, wrestling with his soul, his life, and his relations, we are imprisoned in our seats, struggling to accept why an uncaring, impersonal world would hammer down such a star-crossed spirit. The filmmaker draws out some exceptional performances from a well-worn cast who, like the alchemists of olde, transform themselves and The Visit into a remarkable healing process, using the medicine of family and faith to heal a tortured soul.

Obba Babatundé (Miss Evers' Boys, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) sparks the story as Tony, the stoic older brother, who is celebrating at the family's large thanksgiving gathering, its first in many years. Haunted by the absence of his younger sibling, he masks his uneasiness and guilt behind a false face of cheer. Reconnecting with Alex (Loving Jezebel and The Skulls' Hill Harper) has been difficult -- he doesn't wish to subject his wife and their two children to black sheep of the family -- but the successful businessman is poised to break the physical and mental stranglehold that is emaciating his brother. Thus begins the arduous journey for family and friends in this absorbingly spiritual indie effort.

The nervous reunion with his parents runs hot and cold: a caring mother tearfully embraces her son, joy pouring down her cheeks, while dad scowls in shameful small talk across the table, an emotionally wounded animal observing and then erupting in a cynical rage, carelessly comparing prison life with Disneyland. Tony's visits increase, and he is the catalyst that brings childhood Felicia McDonald (Rae Dawn Chong) on a two-hour trek to call unannounced on the sullen inmate, who barely recognizes the woman. She's also suffered at the hands of society's demons: an incestuous father who sired her a child suffering from cerebral palsy, and a drug addiction from which she is recovering. Chong creates the most memorable performance of the film and her illustrious career (Quest for Fire, The Color Purple, and the PAX-TV series Mysterious Ways). In just a few short scenes there's a brilliant honesty in her face -- a survivor in a cruel world now hoping to help Alex find the spiritual fulfillment that she embodies. Prison psychiatrist Dr. Coles (The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad) is the deliberate eye in Alex's tormented hurricane, a calm center determined to break down his mental barriers and cope with his sulky demeanor and forthcoming parole hearing.

With each successive visit (including those of the doctor), Alex retreats to semi-visualized dreams that transport him out of prison along the train tracks that border the penitentiary, "to gamble in Atlantic City, grab some sweet corn in Iowa, or see titties in Vegas" as he explains to Dr. Coles. He also escapes into enlightening reveries from within his drab cell, the walls barren save for the focus of family photographs. As the muted heartbeat click-clacks of the incessant trains rumbling by and the chit-chat of other inmates dim, the jazz-scented score (pungent original music by Michael Bearden, Stefán Dickerson, Ramsey Lewis, Wallace Roney, and Stanley A. Smith) kicks up and the basic brown texture of the film explodes in hallucinogenic glow. His mother caresses her lost son ; Tony jubilantly hugs and hip-hops with him; his father proudly reads a bedtime story, resting the boy's head on a welcomed shoulder; Felicia slow dancing with him; and Dr. Coles offering the challenge of a friendly game of chess and good news from the parole board. By the mirage fades and the past memories of better times creep into his and the other characters' thoughts, crucial moments that define where life's paths diverged into disruption.

Hill Harper impresses as the tragic prisoner of life's unlucky breaks, his voice hushed by the weariness of incarceration and disease. At times he sounds very much like Denzel Washington (whom he was featured with in Spike Lee's He Got Game), in compelling world-weary mode. As Lois and Henry Waters, Marla Gibbs and Billy Dee Williams both add their own passion in roles that reveal their true depth as actors. Talia Shire (!), David Clennon, Glynn Turman, Efrain Figueroa, and Amy Stiller are the parole board members who bicker amongst themselves, but ultimately offer up little more than a rubber stamp impressing how America deals with its outcasts.

The emotionally-charged ending of the film perhaps covers too much in flashback mode, tackling closure through sermonized post-scripted reflections, but that in no way detracts from the penetrating power of The Visit. You'll never forgive yourself if you miss it.

Written and
Directed by:

Jordan Walker-Pearlman

Hill Harper
Obba Babatundé
Rae Dawn ChongBilly Dee Williams
Marla Gibbs
Phylicia Rashad
Talia Shire
David Clennon
Glynn Turman
Efrain Figueroa
Amy Stiller





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