'Redemption’ Redeems Foxx’s Drama Chops

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Comedian Jamie Foxx takes a dramatic turn in FX’s Redemption, a biopic chronicling the life in jail — and change of heart — of one of the leaders of Los Angeles’ notorious Crips street gang.

Foxx portrays Stan “Tookie” Williamson, a death row resident whom viewers meet just as he arrives at San Quentin Prison, the gangster mentality still intact. Sentenced to death for four murders, he falls back into his own pattern of dominance, becoming a Godfather-like figure inside — a development that earns him six years in solitary confinement.

There, Williams meets an “old-timer” who presents him with books, a Bible and a dictionary. He begins to read and write and also starts thinking anew about his role with the Crips, getting wind of its new dominance of the LA streets — and its place in spreading gun violence and the crack trade.

It’s during this philosophical shift that Williams meets author Barbara Becnel (Lynn Whitfield), who hopes to help kids threatened by gang culture via a book about Crips history. The two don’t hit it off at first — she has a hard time hiding her contempt for Tookie, and he doesn’t trust her — but several long, intense conversations help build the relationship.

Explaining how he turned to violence, Williams tells of the brutality he found on the streets of south central Los Angeles after his family moved there from Louisiana. He had a choice: be a “victim or a victimizer.”

“You had to do the most savage thing possible, on reflex,” Williams tells Becnel.

Director Vondie Curtis Hall’s film is at its most effective when it veers into Williams’ head, and the interplay between the two principals.

That tension doesn’t hold up throughout, though. As the film proceeds — and Williams recruits Becnel to help him author anti-gang children’s books — Tookie’s character shifts from nuanced and complicated to kind of a Ghandi figure. And though Foxx’s elegant, understated performance as the unreconstructed Williams is strong, even that can’t overcome the fourth-act shift’s in tone (and an ill-conceived, misleading dream sequence).

Moreover, the relationship between Bechtel and her son, and the scenes in which Williams is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and meets Winnie Mandela (CCH Pounder) aren’t as fleshed out as could be, leading to an uneven tone.

Nonetheless, Redemption is worth a look if just for Foxx’s portrayal.

Redemption premieres Sunday, April 11, at 8 p.m. on FX.