Written By: Alisha Netis
If the prison system were abolished, how would criminal or even poor decisions be punished? The Lil Voice is a shockingly accurate presentation of a promising life left behind after incarceration. Writer, producer, and director Arthur Muhammad creates a very realistic depiction of the flaws and advantages that the prison reform imposes. While rightfully questioning the biased system toward Black men, the great thing about this film is that in the midst of these serious subjects is also a very classic tale of Black love.
From the outstanding chemistry between the stars, Teiana and Malik (played by Teiana Banks and Lynn Andrews III) to the beautifully executed work done by Malik’s tragic mother (Renee Miche’al Jones). The plot, although simple due to its common nature regarding incarcerated Black men, has the added love and success story within this film, which is worthy of being on the big screen.
Muhammad begins his film with the star returning home from prison only to find his mother doing drugs while an unknown man holds a gun in his face. This start to the film paints a portion of the synopsis of the film in two ways. First, the relationship Malik and his mother share with the tragic death of his little brother looming over their heads. Second, the pain, grief, and estranged feelings his mother holds while Malik stands on the outside looking in. Although the film is centered around Malik, there is definitely enough material here to have centered the film around Malik’s mother, not to mention, Renee’s impeccable job portraying Malik’s mother. In one particular scene, Malik tries to place the blame on his mother for the murder of his little brother in a drive-by shooting. His mother takes this blame and then goes on to list all of the situations that led up to his brother’s death that unfortunately often occur in low-income communities and are racially targeted toward Black and Brown people. This scene also pinpoints the turning point for Malik because he begins to realize that he must take responsibility for his actions in order to get ahead in life.
I can’t tell if Muhammad was intentional in doing this, but his star Malik, who spends five years in prison, gets out and places blame on everyone but himself. First, all of the blame for his prison sentence is on his mother and possibly shared with the man he ran drugs for. Next, he blames Teiana for their break up and his distance even when her motives are more than justified. Finally, he blames his lack of success in the business world on all of the above and only admitting to making one simple mistake. I like that Muhammad has displayed this so in-depth; however, the character change for Malik when he does come to terms with his actual control over his life is too subtle. A viewer not paying attention to the cues could miss his change altogether and believe that it was Malik’s pride getting in the way of his success. This is why I have to continued to question Muhammad’s intentions. If Muhammad has done this intentionally, I’m not sure if it’s a nod toward incarcerated Black men or maybe just incarcerated men altogether? Either way, the message still remains unclear. The only message that is clear is that love conquers all.
Teiana and Malik’s immediate chemistry far outweighs their subpar acting skills. Their connection is so effortless throughout the film, it’s hard not to fall in love with their characters. I’m a sucker for a good love story, and this was the perfect sweet to pair with this bittersweet tale of mass incarceration versus success and happiness. Teiana waits for Malik for the five years he spends in prison without even a phone call from him. When she finally does receive a phone call. it’s because Malik is in need of a favor. Teiana provides him with a stable home, a phone, and even a couple of job opportunities. Malik, unfortunately, proves to be a product of the system and briefly falls prey to old bad habits.
In the end, Muhammad brings everything full circle — even Malik’s mother’s fate; although sealed by drug overdose, she too finds peace. The backbone of this entire film though is through Malik’s conscience. However, Muhammad stretches deeper than just his conscience by bringing it to life in the form of a neighborhood boy Malik finds himself in conversation with. Whenever Malik is going through a hard time and makes the wrong decision, the boy appears around the neighborhood. This part of the film is interesting because the boy is symbolic for many reasons. First, he is Malik’s conscience, then he is Malik’s little brother who was killed, and finally he stands for the age at which point cute and adorable Black boys become scary and threatening Black men.
The boy gives Malik the address of the prison Malik went to as his home address. When Malik discovers this, he can finally place everything into perspective. If Arthur Muhammad wrote this boy into the film to shift the gaze of his audience to see the prison system as something that traps young Black boys before they ever make a bad decision or poor choice, then poetic justice has been served. However, the boy could also just represent Malik’s little brother’s death that lives in the jail cell he did for five years.
There are so many layers to this film to unpack, and that’s what makes it worthy of the big screen. Conversations like this need to be had. What if our prison system were abolished? What would a better version look like? All praise to Arthur Muhammad for bringing his thoughts on this to life. I know we’ll be seeing him a lot more.
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