MOVIE REVIEWS : A Gritty L.A. Story : The low-budget ‘South Central’ is an in-your-face look at life and death on gang-torn turf.
In movies, there are several ways to portray a living hell. You can view it from up high, with the flames and writhing victims creating fantastic patterns and frescoes. You can go down to eye-level and let the violence and pain whip past you. Or you can stay on a face or two and watch hell grow in the eyes. “South Central” (selected theaters) stays on the faces.
Set in Los Angeles’ most notorious gang-torn turf, focusing on gangbangers whose lives alternate between the streets and the slammer, it’s a movie about cycles of hatred and the healing power of love. There are flaws of staginess, preachiness and over-leanness in “South Central"--perhaps inevitably for a tough, idealistic little project shot on a $2-million budget. But its themes are large and its gaze is steady and rock-hard, the story stripped to the bone. It’s a movie about gang life that’s sheared of almost all superfluous background or events and shaped around the moral odyssey of one character, a young unwed father and “homey” named Bobby (Glenn Plummer).
Writer-director Steve Anderson--who based his script on gang expert (and “South Central” adviser) Donald Bakeer’s book “Crips"--shows Bobby as trapped in a terrible cycle, part of a society of fatherless boys, prowling for kicks, neglecting their own families and finding surrogate broods in the local gangs--the Crips, Bloods, or, in this case, the fictional “Deuces.” For Anderson and Bakeer, fatherlessness is Bobby’s curse--and the movie implies that fatherhood is his salvation: that his love for his son Jimmie (Christian Coleman) can save them both.
We first see Bobby emerging from prison, picked up by a carful of unruly “cuzzes” who spray the jailhouse guard with beer and zoom off. His life zooms off too: His friend Ray Ray (Byron Keith Minns) forms the Deuces; an oily pusher-pimp named Genie Lamp (Kevin Best) chases Bobby’s hapless girlfriend (LaRita Shelby), and, when Lamp is killed, Bobby winds up back in prison--where a thoughtful Muslim named Ali (Carl Lumbly), saves him from some rape-minded members of the Aryan Brotherhood and educates him into self-discipline.
The people in “South Central"--mostly young, African-American and involved in gangs or prison--are scary to watch, precisely because, despite their blasted lives, they look so ordinary. They’ve accepted their lot: prostitution, crack and smack peddling, drive-by shootings--and they live according to the rules of a twisted game: a brutal all-male code that is like a crazed parody of a movie Western, with posses of gunfighters battling over the town--or, in this case, the ‘hood.
Against this decay, director Anderson and star Plummer take Bobby through a real moral progress, show him evolving from callow, trigger-tempered gangbanger with cornrow hair and saggy, low-hung pants, to bearded Muslim prison radical to cleaner-cut ex-con--a progress that slightly echoes Malcolm X’s. That sense of unfolding character and consequence is one of the movie’s strengths, as it was in the similar, superior “Boyz N the Hood.”
Unlike John Singleton, Spike Lee or Mario Van Peebles, Anderson is white. Is that a drawback? Not necessarily. Two of the best movies about South African blacks, “Mapantsula” and “Sarafina!,” are by Oliver Schmitz and Darrell Roodt, white directors working with black writers. But perhaps it accounts for a kind of abstraction and distance, a tendency to keep the focus a little too shallow, the moral issues a little too clear.
Despite its good performances--Minns, Lumbly, Shelby and Best, as well as Plummer--"South Central” lacks a certain juice, heat and life. It doesn’t boil with the energy you’d expect from a gang picture, and it doesn’t have the density or rich atmosphere of a “Boyz N the Hood,” “Do the Right Thing” or “New Jack City.” Though it was shot in South-Central L.A., there’s not much buzz or personality to the streets; they’re almost as bare as a Western’s. The movie’s solemnity puts it closer in mood to Charles Burnett’s superb lower-key L.A. pictures, “Killer of Sheep” or “To Sleep With Anger"--though it lacks Burnett’s subtlety and pushes down too hard on its own action-movie set-pieces: the hostage standoffs and mano-a-mano stare-downs.
That doesn’t mean much of “South Central” (MPAA-rated R for violence, drug use and sensuality) isn’t brave or admirable, or that it misses the reality and resonance of today’s inner-city L.A. Shot before April, 1992, this movie obviously isn’t about the Rodney G. King riots, but it is about the cruelty and crimes that fed them. Watching these faces in this hell, it doesn’t blink.
Glenn Plummer: Bobby
Byron Keith Minns: Ray Ray
Carl Lumbly: Ali
Christian Coleman: Jimmie
An Oliver Stone presentation of an Ixtlan production, released by Warner Bros. Director/Screenplay Steve Anderson. Producers Janet Yang, William B. Steakley. Executive producer Oliver Stone. Cinematographer Charlie Lieberman. Editor Steve Nevius. Costumes Mary Law Weir. Music Tim Truman. Production design David Brian Miller, Marina Kieser. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (Violence, drug use, sensuality).