'Up Against the Wall' turns a worthy idea into a listless film

April 23, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The road to good intentions is seldom paved with art, as most orthodox, politically correct works testify. No further evidence need be cited than "Up Against the Wall," a completely correct, completely dead melodrama now playing in a few area theaters.

Built around a social agenda rather than an artistic one, the movie is somewhat numbing in its effort to do good deeds. It means to answer all those melodramas in which young black men are defined by the guns that they carry, the jive that they talk and the carnage that they cause.

The movie even begins with a joke on this theme: Its first image is a gun barrel and you think, uh-oh, party time. But the camera pulls back and we discover that it's a starter's pistol and it's a cross-country race we're about to witness, not a drug gang shoot-out, vis a vis "New Jack City."

This one is New Jock City. "Up Against the Wall" watches as an urban black teen-ager, whose athletic talents have earned him the attention of a suburban coach, earns himself a ticket out of the projects. It's conceived primarily as an ordeal by temptation: Slowly, each of the temptations so destructive to the culture of young men are put before him and he has to find the strength inside himself to survive them all. These include drugs, sex and violence and pervasive, oppressive and depressing racism.

The last is a well-conceived concept: The young man is from an exclusively black culture in the inner city; he hardly ever talked to whites. Now, suddenly, in the 'burbs, he's thrust among them and he's not used to the kind of put-downs he must face; dealing with them takes special amounts of courage and discipline.

The movie is constructed to give black adolescents a positive self-image. That's fine; what bothered me about "Up Against the Wall" was its reflexive sexism. The young women are depicted universally as sluts interested only in "pleasure" and seeking to seduce our hero from his one true way. It's very nasty stuff, completely unnecessary.

'Up Against the Wall'

Starring Marla Gibbs and Ron O'Neal.

Directed by Ron O'Neal.

Released by African American Images.

Rated PG-13.


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