Wednesday November 10, 1999
From the moment you see stressed-out, short-tempered NYPD patrolman Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker) roughing up scruffy, gentle Ziggy Malone (Robert Ri'chard) for drawing pictures on a crowded high school stairwell, you suspect that a long day is in store for the borough of Queens.
And before you can say "Blackboard Jungle," the following ensues in "Light It Up": A popular teacher (Judd Nelson) is suspended for taking his class off school grounds because there was no available space in the under-heated, overcrowded building for him to do his job. Several students, including the class president (Rosario Dawson), the star basketball player (Usher Raymond) and the friendly drug dealer (Clifton Collins Jr.) are all threatened with suspension for protesting this decision.
Then chaos. The basketball star, whose name is Lester, gets in the middle of a scuffle between Officer Jackson and Ziggy, who accidentally shoots the cop in the leg with the latter's own sidearm. Somehow the gun ends up in Lester's hands. Early dismissal. Everybody gets to leave, except Lester, Ziggy, Jackson, the class president and the dealer. They are soon joined by a gang member (Fredro Starr) who'd love to show Lester what he could do with that gun, and a pregnant punk-ette (Sara Gilbert), who was asleep in the library when all the commotion started.
Soon, this demographically perfect team of accidental guerrillas is making demands over the World Wide Web for things they couldn't get through normal channels, like textbooks, new windows and respect. Lester, who has reasons for his bitterness toward the police, seems to be speaking to more than the wounded cop when he says, "You had your minds made up about us the minute you got here."
It is as a plea for tolerance and compassion that "Light It Up" functions best. When you see the dreary, impossible conditions at the school, you share the sense of helplessness and abandonment pervading many urban public schools. An inventory of such grievances would have been gripping enough without reprising "Dog Day Afternoon," right down to the street rabble's rousing cheers for the hostage-takers.
But a hostage drama, cliches intact, is what we get. And despite the firm resolve of Vanessa L. Williams' police negotiator to bring closure with no more spilled blood, you just wait for the inevitable payback that somebody in this crowd is going to get for daring to Break the Law. The presence of Raymond, Starr and Williams, recording stars all, gives "Light It Up" the feel of a familiar pop standard given a new synthetic polish and not much else.
Light It Up, 1999. R for language and violent content. Fox 2000 Pictures presents an Edmonds Entertainment production. Director Craig Bolotin. Producer Tracey E. Edmonds. Executive producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Screenplay by Craig Bolotin. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Wendy Greene Bricmont. Costumes Salvador Perez. Music Harry Gregson-Williams. Production design Lawrence G. Paull. Art director Karen Fletcher Trujillo. Set decorator Tricia Schneider. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Usher Raymond as Lester Dewitt. Forest Whitaker as Dante Jackson. Rosario Dawson as Stephanie Williams. Vanessa L. Williams as Audrey McDonald. Judd Nelson as Ken Knowles. Robert Ri'chard as Ziggy Malone.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times