'Straight Out of Brooklyn' aims straight to the heart of racism

June 28, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Matty Rich's "Straight Out of Brooklyn" is like the story of a curse; it watches a fearful legacy of violence as it is handed down through a family, father to son, dooming them both.

The setting is the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, a loveless and shabby urban vista filled with the slab-like buildings of the "Projects," vertical slums that breed despair and inhumanity, and make the trapped spirit yearn for escape, any escape, on any terms.

Of course the movie that chronicles this hopeless cycle, by its very existence, belies it. Matty Rich, who lived in Red Hook, started it when he was 17. Raising money, charming and beguiling actors, family, friends and finally distributors, he eventually got it made over two long years and many XTC disappointments. The movie proper argues that the situation is hopeless; the movie's existence argues that it's not.

It's not polished, of course; how could it be? But it's surprisingly sophisticated, given the circumstances of its creation, and if the rage that courses through it is unmitigated, at the same time it shows the possibility of love, comradeship, civility, dignity. loyalty.

The curse that runs through it is racism. The setting may be the rotten Big Apple, but the true turf is the psychological terrain of the Brown family, a mom and a dad of indeterminate middle age and two bright children in their late teens, all living cramped together in a little cubicle above the mean streets where dope dealers prowl and life is oh so cheap. But far from an isle of tranquillity, the apartment is a hellhole; what happens there makes the point that the society is the father to the family just as the man is the father to the boy.

Ray (George T. Odom) wanted to be a doctor; he is a gas station attendant. His wife (Anne D. Sanders) is a domestic. The years of yessing have taken their toll; embittered and desolate, he takes his rage out on those nearest to him. He beats her every time he drinks, which is quite often.

Meanwhile, his two kids, particularly the son, 17-year-old Dennis (played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr., a Baltimore School for the Arts graduate) yearn to escape. In his urgency, Dennis throws caution out the door. He's so desperate to get straight out of Brooklyn, that he allows himself to be seduced by the allure of the fast buck. He determines, with two less-intense friends (one of them played by Matty Rich himself) to knock off a drug dealer, take the money and run, and take his family along with him, saving his mother from his father and his father from himself.

Thus "Straight Out of Brooklyn" is essentially a work of urban sociology. It shows how crime and tragedy are bred out of social circumstances and, without really being conscious of it, advances the familiar argument that criminals are victims before they are criminals.

However you feel about that message, the movie advances it persuasively. The cast is extremely professional and Rich's novice-status only peeps through once in a while. In one unfortunate scene, the depressed Ray takes his anger out on a gas station customer who is portrayed in the cartoon-like terms that otherwise the movie avoids. And the lack of a second camera to give the young director the flexibility to cut to different angles gives the movie a certain stifled quality that grows tedious.

Rich's best gift, after writing vivid characters, is astounding in one so young. He works extremely well with actors, and there's not a bad performance in the group; those passionate, vivid performances and the utter reality of the streets give "Straight Out of Brooklyn" the sense of being aimed straight into Brooklyn.

'Straight Out of Brooklyn'

Starring George T. Odom and Lawrence Gilliard Jr.

Directed by Matty Rich.

Released by Goldwyn.

Rated R.

***

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