“DROP Squad” turns upon a reprehensible, indefensible dramatic device: an illegal deprogramming team dedicated to kidnaping and brainwashing self-centered upwardly mobile blacks to reconnect them with their roots.
But the presence of this Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride Squad detonates a provocative, emotion-charged melodrama that deals with complex and contradictory intra-racial issues as few films have. This is one of those unwieldy and improbable pictures that ends up touching upon more crucial bases than if had it been a more realistic, better structured film.
In the film’s best-written role, “ER"s Eriq LaSalle really shines. He’s Bruford Jamison Jr., a handsome young ad executive so ambitious that he supports and helps create the most demeaning campaigns imaginable aimed at African American consumers. It’s hard to believe that in today’s corporate America he’d actually have to be so totally an Uncle Tom. But the film nevertheless powerfully conveys the isolation and repressed anger experienced by so many blacks who succeed in overwhelmingly white-dominated American institutions.
On the one hand, Bruford believes he has to overlook so much that he loathes in order to survive and get ahead and, on the other, feels resentful toward what his family insists are his obligations and responsibilities. The flash point is his sweet-natured, uneducated and impoverished cousin (Afemo Omilami), who was his best friend in childhood. The cousin wants his help in landing an entry-level job at the ad agency, but Bruford feels that he will be an embarrassment to him if he’s hired in any capacity.
For Bruford’s sister (Nicole Powell), this is the last straw, and she directs the DROP Squad to kidnap her brother to straighten him out. (That this is the reason is not immediately clear, so poorly is the film structured.) Alas, its leader, Rocky (Vondie Curtis-Hall), and his key aide, Garvey (Ving Rhames), are in a philosophical conflict: Rocky wants to stick to his nonviolent principles while Garvey insists that nowadays physical force is in order. The deprogramming sequences are convincing only as displays of protracted, dangerous and degrading brutality, and both Rocky and Garvey are made to seem nothing more than misguided, none-too-bright thugs steeped in presumptuous, half-baked ideology.
In terms of morality and realism, the squad is a bum device, for any number of normal occurrences in his life could force Bruford to reappraise his values. Yet this film is so charged with ambivalence in almost all its aspects--that’s its fascination, as is the case with most Oscar Micheaux films--that you have the feeling that first-time director David Johnson and his co-writers have a lingering wish that a humane form of the DROP Squad actually existed. In any event, the film evokes the dilemma that any member of a minority experiences to varying degrees: Where does your responsibility to yourself and your family and your community begin and end?
It falls to LaSalle, of TV’s “E.R.” series, to carry the picture through its bumpy course, and he does so with aplomb; his Bruford in fact could be more sympathetic than the filmmakers intended. With his talent, LaSalle is likely to go on to better films, but “DROP Squad” will surely remain among his most challenging assignments.
* MPAA rating: R, for language . Times guidelines: It includes lengthy scenes of brutality and degradation unsuitable for children .
Eriq LaSalle: Bruford Jamison Jr. Vondie Curtis-Hall: Rocky Ving Rhames: Garvey Afemo Omilami: Flip A Gramercy Pictures presentation. Director David Johnson. Producers Butch Robinson, Shelby Stone. Executive producer Spike Lee. Screenplay by Johnson, Robinson and David Taylor; derived from Taylor’s short story “The Deprogrammer” and Johnson’s short film “The Session.” Cinematogapher Ken Kelsch. Editor Kevin Lee. Costumes Darlene Jackson. Music Marcus Miller. Production designer Ina Mayhew. Art director Paul Weathered. Set decorator Judy Rhee. Running time: 1 hour, 25 miutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.