The HBO movie “Strapped” begins with two boys fighting in the black housing projects of Brooklyn, one about 12, the other a teen-ager. After being roughed up, the younger boy yanks out a gun and shoots the other boy dead.
Asked later by the film’s 18-year-old protagonist, Diquan Mitchell, if he was sorry, the shooter replies, “Nah, man. For a minute, maybe.” And when the body is removed by authorities, an even younger boy comments, “That ain’t nuthin’. I seen dead people before.”
These early tastes define the hardened, crime-driven, gun-rampant universe of these youths and their desensitization to the self-destructive violence that surrounds and shapes them. “Strapped"--the title is street jargon for being armed--airs at 8 tonight. Although at times marred by script dysfunction, its powerful account of an underclass of young African-Americans is an electrifyingly thumbs-up and a promising directorial debut for Forest Whitaker (the resourceful but doomed young soldier in “The Crying Game”).
Two fated young lovers, Diquan (Bokeem Woodbine) and his pregnant girlfriend, Latisha (Kia Joy Goodwin), are at the center of Dena Kleiman’s story. An ex-con and former drug dealer who lives in an apartment with his mother, grandmother, two half-sisters and a half-brother, Diquan wants to escape the oil slick he’s barely afloat in, but sinks even deeper when he resorts to illegal gun dealing to earn bail for Latisha, who’s in jail for selling crack. Meanwhile, his stint as a snitch for an undercover cop (Michael Biehn) also goes sour, putting him in a desperate position.
Whitaker is a sucker for easy symbolism, at one point heavy-handedly overusing flag-waving patriotism as a metaphor for hypocrisy, as Old Glory waves from a pole in the front yard of a black-exploiting white gun dealer’s house in Honey-I’m-home suburbia. But Whitaker’s fluid camera enhances his eye for detail and texture, and his rap-throbbing street scenes--where firearms are available cafeteria style and 10-year-olds can buy guns to kill other 10-year-olds--are raw and emotionally charged.
The director has a brawny cast to work with, from the persuasive, rap-strutting Woodbine to rapper Fredo as Diquan’s angry partner in crime, Bamboo, to Starletta Dupois as Diquan’s well-intentioned mother. A violent clash between mother and son is one of the movie’s most wrenching moments.
Kleiman’s script makes some lethal points concerning police impotence and the ready availability of guns even to the very young. What neither Whitaker nor the cast can overcome, however, is her tendency to lecture from a soapbox. When her stiffly delivered advocacy message takes over, “Strapped” buckles at the knees. Other than that, it stands tall as an example of HBO’s commitment to drama as a mirror of society in a summer when theatrical movies have fled into fantasy.