Two Black, Two Strong

Whatever the new generation of black moviemakers lacks in dramatic sophistication and deep-pockets funding, it makes up for in freshness and passionate certainty of purpose. Witness the admirable first efforts of newcomers Matty Rich, age 19, and John Singleton, a geezer at 23.

Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn, a roughhewn primer on black selfhood and part-time morality play, was made on a rock-bottom budget of $80,000 and shot largely in the humble apartment of the writer/director's grandmother. But the film's grim look at rage and frustration in the lives of one family from Brooklyn's tough Red Hook section has the feel of allegory: This is life in the projects, it says.

Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, set on the opposite coast in south central Los Angeles, is no less didactic. Boyz, too, features an adolescent protagonist, and it also surveys the menaces of the ghetto-drugs, violence, poverty, the instability of overstressed families.

Driven by youthful intensity and cockiness, both movies are painted in broad strokes, and they cast white racism as the inevitable heavy. In Brooklyn, young Dennis Brown (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) gazes across the water at the sweeping skyline of lower Manhattan. "That's the American Dream, man," he tells a friend, adding that it was built "by steppin' on the black man, steppin' on the black family."

The aptly named Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne), the strong and admirable father in Boyz, dispenses similar aphorisms, along with love, as a way of getting his son Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) through the dangerous traumas and temptations of life on the street. The gun shops and liquor stores on every ghetto corner, Dad explains, are the white man's attempt to destroy blacks; college entrance exams are culturally biased; neighborhood gentrification is a form of genocide; black cops are self-hating sellouts.

If Father Knows Best in L.A. (at least his bitter wisdom is never questioned), Father Knows The Rest back in Red Hook. Dennis's downtrodden father Ray Brown (George T. Odom), a gas-station attendant who once dreamed of becoming a doctor, rages at his victim's fate every time he gets into the Smirnoff. He beats his long-suffering wife Frankie (Ann D. Sanders) so frequently that her agonized face displays a map of welts, and he laments that Dennis will be defeated just as he was.

Thus do messages and morals stack up in these two cautionary tales about passage into manhood. Troubled Dennis Brown is drawn into the foolish robbery of a local drug runner; smart, sensitive Tre Styles must choose between joining an act of revenge for a drive-by shooting or going home. For both moviemakers, though, the choice is clear: Get the hard realities of the street onto the screen, the niceties of dramatic shape be damned. Rich and Singleton succeed, too. We feel for these appealing, threatened kids. We want them to make it. And the characters seem far less artificial than those in Jungle Fever or Mo' Better Blues.

Now that Hollywood finds it profitable to indulge such raw emotional truths - nineteen movies by black directors are scheduled for 1991 release, and two dozen more feature black actors - it doesn't hurt to remember that the truth (in these two cases, at least) is being put forth by a 19-year-old and a 23-year-old, complete with all the impatience, trumped-up melancholy, and blind miscalculation to which youth is subject. Brooklyn and Boyz are blunt and overtly explicit - the world viewed in black and white, so to speak.

At the same time, the films display such high energy, irreverent wit, and heartfelt goodness at their cores that it is hard for any audience to ignore them. If, by recognizing the emergence of a new, socially black realism on the screen, Hollywood is "ghettoizing" the wave empowered by Spike Lee and (like it or not) TV's mushy Cosby Show, that curse will likely be lifted when moviemakers such as Rich, Singleton, and Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) grow into their own gifts and out of their hubris. The wait will be worth it.

Written and directed by Matty Rich; with Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., George T. Odom, and Ann D. Sanders.

Rated R.
Now playing at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.

Written and directed by John Singleton; with Cuba Gooding, Jr., Larry Fishburne, Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut.

Rated R.
Now playing at major theaters in Dade and Broward counties.


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