The Visit

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

Alex Waters (Hill Harper, "He Got Game") is in prison for 25 years for a rape he swears he didn't commit. As members of his estranged family visit him, he dreams of each relationship in a musical interlude. He also dreams of travelling on the trains which pass by the prison walls, gradually opens up to prison psychiatrist Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad, TV's "The Cosby Show"), and prepares for his first meeting with the parole board. As if Alex didn't have enough to cope with, he also must face AIDS in "The Visit."

Adapted from Kosmond Russell's stage play by director Jordan Walker-Pearlman, "The Visit" is actually a series of visits, beginning with Alex's older brother Tony (Obba Babatunde, "Life") whom he hasn't seen in ten months. Alex demands that Tony get their parents to visit him and admonishes him for not bringing his family (although later their Dad turns the tables on Alex, when he's not able to name is niece and nephew). Alex dreams of disco dancing with Tony is his cell.

Next, Henry and Lois Waters (Billy Dee Williams, "Lady Sings the Blues" and Marla Gibbs of TV's "The Jeffersons") appear, both nervously twisting their wedding rings as they await Alex. Father and son clearly have serious issues, the stern Henry disapproving of Alex's lifestyle even before he was jailed. Motherlove is strong though and Alex dreams of dancing with his mother to "For All We Know."

Meetings with Dr. Cole are intriguing as the psychiatrist pushes Alex to confront himself. Rashad makes some interesting acting choices, putting a real spin on the tough-as-nails, but ultimately supportive doctor. Harper, as Alex, frequently recalls Denzel Washington's demeanor and delivery.

The film's strongest scene, however, comes when Alex's childhood friend Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong, "Commando") comes to visit, apologizing for not having spoken to him in twenty years. As a child, Alex witnessed the sexual abuse Felicia suffered at the hands of her father and her guilt made her unable to face Alex anymore. Now a born again Christian, Felicia begins to push many of Alex's buttons, challenging and angering him, before finally presenting her deep empathy with his past - she was a crack addict who sunk even lower than he, selling herself to support her habit and bearing a severely handicapped child. These three broken people form a family, inspiring all around them. Rae Dawn Chong delivers a powerhouse performance here that should garner strong Best Supporting Actress consideration.

Alex's parole board (Talia Shire, David Clennon, Glynn Turman, Efrain Figueroa and Amy Stiller) functions almost as a Greek chorus, asking Alex searching questions and debating the merits of Dr. Cole's recommendation behind closed doors.

"The Visit" features tight shots which frequently fade to black after snippets of conversation and jump cuts which make the film feel self-consciencely stylish. Lighting is anything but natural (as is evidenced when Alex refolds a positively glowing piece of tissue) and sound editting is a bit ragged. Some of the fantasy sequences play like a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, as does the overly sentimental ending. Yet the story works strongly when it does, aided by the terrific performances from Rae Dawn Chong and Phylicia Rashad.


Alex Walter (Hill Harper) is serving 25 years for a rape he says he didn't commit. His once close knit family has abandoned him, except for the occasional visits by his brother, Tony (Obba Babatunde). Now, five years into Alex's sentence, Tony journeys to the prison once again, but this time it's different. Alex has AIDS. With the help of prison psychiatrist Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad), Alex learns to cope with his disease and confront the rift he caused for his family in "The Visit."

Newcomer Jordan Walker-Pearlman's ambitious debut as director/writer/producer is based on the play of the same name by Kosmond Russell. The story begins with a long overdue visit by Tony to his younger brother. It has been ten months since their last reunion and, it turns out, Alex's parents have never been to the prison to see him. The younger man breaks the news to Tony that he is dying and wants to see his family, maybe regaining some of their past closeness.

When Lois and Henry Walters (Marla Gibbs and Billy Dee Williams) finally make the two-hour journey to the prison, mom could not be more ecstatic about seeing her little boy after so many years. But, dad can't let the past just sit and stew, so he begins to deride Alex for his mistakes. All the while, Alex denies his guilt. The confrontation abruptly ends the visit and Lois must leave with not enough time with younger son. But, a seed is planted and there is the hope of more time together.

Soon after, Alex receives another visitor, Felicia McDonald (Rae Dawn Chong), a childhood friend who has had her own series of hard knocks through life. Felicia suffered the incestuous advances of an abusive father, bore his child, and became a crack cocaine addict and a petty criminal. She killed her father to protect her son. Now, she's on the mend, is off of drugs and is caring for her son and his cerebral palsy - a product of her father's rape. Her visit to Alex is a recuperative one as she rekindles their old friendship, giving Alex some solace in his despair.

The episodic visits continue with mom and dad, Tony, Felicia and her son coming back to see Alex. A new life, of sorts, emerges as Alex loses himself in a fantasy world of soft lights and the gentle touches of loved ones. It's a nice melding of the sweet fantasy with the brutal reality of prison life. The despair is well tempered by the positive developments spawned by the visits and some fabulous acting.

The ensemble cast focuses on Alex as he undergoes an odd sort of redemption in the life he finds, again, with his family and Felicia. Alex is spiritually rescued as he draws his family back to him. The real treat is Rae Dawn Chong as Felicia. She comes on screen as a nice, well-adjusted woman visiting an old friend. As she unfolds her past to Alex, we find out what a harsh life she has had, making her present state of well being all the more remarkable. It's a stunning performance that reps one of the best supporting roles this year. Marla Gibbs actually glows in the warm light of her love for her sons. Billy Dee Williams is suitable gruff as the disappointed dad whose love for his family helps him get past his shame of Alex. Obba Babatunde serves well as the bridge between Alex and his family.

Fledgling filmmaker Walker-Pearlman makes a striking first entry into feature films. There is a great deal brewing in the mind of the writer that makes a statement on the psychological impact of incarceration on the inmate and his family. Innocent or guilty, the fact that he is in prison is a stigma that Alex, his family and, especially, his father must overcome. The helmer's visual style is raw with overused close-ups and shaky hand held camerawork, but there is talent there, too. I give "The Visit" a B-.

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