Civil Brand

Prisons as modern plantations is a premise that could play well on the big screen. But Civil Brand should be found guilty of neglecting the idea, as screenwriters Preston A. Whitmore II, a native Detroiter, and Joyce Renee Lewis spend most of their time here rehashing melodramatic clichés.

“Motherfuckahs, welcome to the plantation,” Sabrina (rapper Da Brat) announces to hazel-eyed Frances Shepard (Da Brat’s sister, LisaRaye) and the rest of a busload of orange-jumpsuited and handcuffed cons. The women are headed to Whitehead Prison, where they’ll earn $1.50 a day slaving at sewing machines.

Warden Nelson (Reed R. McCants) has fashioned himself as an industrial CEO, and a menacing one at that. Capt. Dease (Clifton Powell) sees himself as the real head of the operation, and keeps inmates in their place — which is to say, under him, in every sense of the phrase.

Dease rapes some of his “bitches.” But does that make him a plantation slave master? No. Whitmore’s casting the for-profit prison industry as a modern-day plantation is flawed from the start by his equivocal choice of metaphor. The prison, headed by two black men, is more like a criminally abusive medium-security sweatshop. Meanwhile, the film lets racial issues cool on the back burner, never taking the opportunity to throw Civil Brand into the fire. Though a few women get armed and murderous, it’s a scene that could have been copped straight from Norma Rae’s labor strike rather than Nat Turner’s slave insurrection.

What sets the sisters off? Apparently, melodrama so bittersweet it makes the mouth pucker, ladled over a plot thicker than the slop served in penitentiary cafeterias. Women in prison — especially mothers, like Frances and Nikki Barnes (N’Bushe Wright), or mothers-to-be like the Bible-toting angel, Little Momma (Lark Voorhies) — are the stuff of soap operas. And here, there are villains who abuse a bunch of good-hearted female convicts, and like in the good old days, the bad guys get their just rewards.

Unfortunately, Civil Brand fails to take advantage of its potential. And the mediocrity seems to be a trend with Whitmore. Even with rapper Master P’s name on the marquee, the screenwriter’s last flick, Lockdown (2000), spent three years gathering dust after its first festival showing. The murder conviction of one of its stars — who was originally slated to appear in Antwone Fisher (2002) may have been why Lockdown appeared at all in cineplexes.

Civil Brand got off relatively easy, doing only a year’s time on the shelf. But both of Whitmore’s films should never have been released theatrically. Instead, they should have been found guilty of being bad B-movies and sent straight to the cinematic jail of quick video release.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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