Set Me Free (2014) – By Kyle Hytonen

Lovingly filmed along Oakland’s streets, parks, backyards, alleys, clubs, recording studios and beauty salons, the urban drama Set Me Free is a very personal slice of life from writer/director/co-star Marcus D Spencer (aka Big Spence).

The film follows 4 young black men, childhood friends, currently all at different points in their adult life. Keith (Skipper Elekwachi) is an aspiring rapper, trying to give it one last go round. Korey (Alan Walker) is Keith’s cousin and only wants the best for him and his friends, even though the street thug life has a hold of his other side. Kenny (Big Spence) is a single father, trying to better his education and life. Kevin (Alphonoso Thomspon) is a hard edged thug who tries to stay straight but always falls to the way of the gun. These four men are at the core of the film, and each help propel the story along. Their conflicts seem as real as you can get, with writer/director Spencer trying to avoid sugar coating their dilemmas for audiences too much. The urban drama clichés found in this film are few and far between, which makes for an enjoyable screening.

The film follows each man on separate journeys throughout the narrative, with all of them rounding up near the film’s climax. There is enough realism in each segment to make this film a standout amongst others of its ilk. There is an inherent streak of love injected into each scene from all involved, even though sometimes the subject matter can get dark. Writer/Director Spencer and his cast all have big hearts and it shows in the way the characters interact with each other. This is a cast and crew that seem to have had a great time making the film, and in particular it shines through in the characterizations.

Set Me Free runs at nearly 2 hours, and the only drawback in the film may lie in its jagged narrative, which at some points veers off as it follows some of the men’s love lives. There are A LOT of characters and sub-plots in Set Me Free, some of them seem to have no nobility to the progression of the narrative, which does seem distracting. During the film’s climactic third act, Keith and Kenny both take center stage with their love lives, while we wait to hear the outcome of Kevin’s personal dilemma and the rest of the film’s conflicts. Spencer’s big heart as a film-maker may also be his only determent, as he may have found it too hard to cut anything out, so to sacrifice pacing and narrative, he just left it in. The film still ends on a satisfying note, but it seemed to take the long way around to get there.

According to the film’s IMDb page, Set Me Free was produced for a budget of $20,000 USD. The production value is fantastic in this film, and every dollar comes out on screen. Locations are used wonderfully throughout and this is definitely a side of Oakland one can soak up and enjoy in the visuals. Spencer has a great grasp of cinematic language and camera use. There is a lot of handheld which helps add to the fly on the wall approach to the story, but he also knows when to move the camera to heighten action scenes. The performances from all 4 leads, as well as the supporting cast are all believable and well crafted, each bringing their own personal input into their characters. Matter of fact, some of the smaller characters don’t seem to be acting at all, and they may very well just be “characters” in Spencer’s life he just felt would add to the film’s realism if put in front of the camera. The music is well produced as well, ranging from rap tracks to a finely nuanced underscore by Chris Louray.

Overall, Set Me Free is a terrific and intimate take on urban life on the tough streets of Oakland. The film comes from a very loving place, and is not nasty in its intentions. Although there is a slight hiccup in the oversaturated narrative, the film still manages to stay on track showing a side of life most would not associate with the tough streets of Oakland, California. Most films in the Urban Drama genre like these seem to end in heartbreak, this one climaxes with a skip in its step.

Set Me Free is currently on its film festival run. More info on the film and upcoming screenings can be found at https://www.facebook.com/SetMeFreetheMovie