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'The Visit': One Man's Quiet Confinement

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2001


    'The Visit' Hill Harper and Rae Dawn Chong star in "The Visit." (Urbanworld)
From the beginning of "The Visit," it's clear this is no "Oz." There are no gory fights. No gratuitous nude scenes. No Machiavellian power plays.

Indeed, "The Visit," Jordan Walker-Pearlman's brooding meditation on prison life,is the antithesis of HBO's prison soap. In "The Visit," the director's first film, prison is an extended banishment into solitary confinement. Outside life, from jeering inmates to insulting prison guards to head-shaking family members, is mere background noise. The only thing that can be heard clearly is the internal monologue of Alex, a young prisoner infected with AIDS.

What Alex hears isn't always welcome.

"AIDS and prison, to me, they're one and the same," says Alex, in a compelling performance by Hill Harper. "Society doesn't give a [expletive] about either."

And neither does society care about black men who stray outside the lines, the film seems to be saying. Such men are warehoused in prisons – of society's and their own making. They are isolated from those they love, isolated from touch, isolated from hope.

Alex, serving time for a rape he says he didn't commit, is an ex-addict who finds himself fantasizing endlessly about his family. He hungers for their hugs, for their laughter, for their companionship. He has contracted AIDS, apparently from a prison rape. He won't tell anyone the truth about that, not even his dispassionate prison psychiatrist, Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad). After five years in prison, he's up for parole. But parole seems an afterthought. What Alex wants most is a visit from his middle-class family that has all but turned their backs on him.

Of course, in the face of so much emotional baggage, nothing is so simple. And yet the characters try.

Harper, with his haunted eyes and husky, halting speech, gives us a minimalist yet moving portrait of an emotionally stunted man desperate to be loved. A jowly Billy Dee Williams turns in a nuanced performance of a rigid father who spent too much time building a business to build a relationship with his son.

Strong, too, is Rae Dawn Chong as Alex's childhood friend Felicia, a woman who survived both incest and crack and found hope in the church. Her jailhouse scene with Harper provides a naturalistic peek at two battle-scarred souls taking the first, awkward steps toward deeper friendship.

"The Visit," produced and distributed by the African American studio Urbanworld, is based on a play by Kosmond Russell (purportedly inspired by a true story). Taking a play, which relies on dialogue, to the screen, which relies on visuals, is tricky. Walker-Pearlman tries to solve the problem by shooting whole scenes without dialogue against an often deafening jazz score.

At times, it's powerful: Alex collapsed on his knees in the prison yard, arms raised to the sky, tears coursing down his face; a train curving around the prison, the tracks separating the incarcerated from the free.

But Walker-Pearlman leans on this device until feels like sloppy visual shorthand. There's no need to bludgeon the viewer with cinematic tricks. "The Visit" provides enough punch on its own. In particular, the snippets of flashbacks stitched together in the rush to conclusion feel hurried.

Still, there is much that will resonate with a patient viewer. In its quiet way, "The Visit" is a testament to the tenacity of the family, particularly the African American family.

"The Visit" (110 minutes) is rated R for obscenity and discussion of incest and prison rape.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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