"Light It Up" is reminiscent of the socially conscious films of the late '60s and early '70s. Passionate about justice and proudly wearing the mantle of its idealism, the film is as much a sociopolitical document as it is entertainment. That this film from Edmonds Entertainment achieves a nice balance between those twin but not always compatible goals is a tribute to writer-director Craig Bolotin.
"Light It Up" will undoubtedly play well in urban situations. The question is: How well will 20th Century Fox marketers reach out to white and middle-class audiences? Bolotin has certainly done his job by delivering a playable movie with terrific performances from a young, talented cast.
The story gets under way swiftly and moves at a steady though edgy pace toward an uncertain climax. It starts on an ordinary winter day at a rundown New York high school -- meaning freezing classrooms, a leaky roof and not enough textbooks. Unable to use his classroom, a teacher (Judd Nelson
) takes a class off campus with nearly tragic results when a holdup occurs at the fast-food joint he has turned into a makeshift school room.
When the teacher gets suspended by the authoritarian principal (Glynn Turman
), his students revolt. An NYPD officer (Forest Whitaker
) newly assigned to school security intervenes, and in a struggle with a student is accidentally shot in the leg.
The campus is quickly evacuated, police surround the building and seven students barricade themselves inside with the wounded officer as their hostage.
Suddenly, the young people realize that for the first time in their lives they have a platform for their complaints, that the media and city are waiting to hear their demands. But what do they want? And what do they have to say about their lives?
Naturally, the seven represent a schematic cross section of student society. But Bolotin views the youngsters with sympathy, spending enough time with each to delineate the reasons behind their actions and the trouble in their young lives that leads to such despair. What these youngsters want is respect; instead, they are subjected to snap judgments and stereotyping by adults.
R&B singer Usher Raymond
emerges as the group's leader, a basketball flash whose life has gone into a spiral since the shooting death of his father by police. Rosario Dawson
, a popular beauty who aspires to a medical career, stays behind initially to tend to the wounded cop but gradually finds herself involved in the rebellion.
The key player, though, is Robert Ri'chard's budding artist, whose family life is so devastating that his terror at being sent home from school at midday precipitates the crisis.
The others -- a tough-talking gang banger (actor/hip-hop artist Fredro Starr
), a hustler (Clifton Collins Jr.) and a pregnant, alienated punker (Sara Gilbert) -- are more types than characters, though these actors acquit themselves well.
Bolotin wisely confines his story to the school where Elliot Davis
' mobile camera with wide angle lenses prowls the crumbling school corridors designed by Lawrence G. Paull. And while the plot line and characters are often dictated by the film's thematic intentions, Bolotin manages to keep the story as organic as possible.
LIGHT IT UP
20th Century Fox
Producer: Tracey E. Edmonds
Screenwriter-director: Craig Bolotin
Executive producer: Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Lawrence G. Paull
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Co-producers: Bridget D. Davis
, Helena Echegoyen
Costume designer: Salvador Perez
Editor: Wendy Greene Bricmont
Lester Dewitt: Usher Raymond
Officer Dante Jackson: Forest Whitaker
Stephanie Williams: Rosario Dawson
Zacharias "Ziggy" Malone: Robert Ri'chard
Ken Knowles: Judd Nelson
Rodney J. Templeton: Fredro Starr
Lynn Sabitini: Sara Gilbert
Robert "Rivers" Tremont: Clifton Collins Jr.
Principal Armstrong: Glynn Turman
Running time -- 99 minutes
MPAA rating: R