'Strapped' reveals the pain in the projects

August 20, 1993|By Diane Werts | Diane Werts,Newsday

What's it like to live in a neighborhood where the sound of gunfire outpoints car horns honking? Where kids shoot other kids? Where they don't baby-sit or mow lawns to make a few bucks, they just sell crack?

You wanna know what it's like? HBO gives a taste this weekend, and it's enough to make you reassess all those stereotypes about the 'hood and its inhabitants. The movie "Strapped" (premiering Saturday night at 8) takes us onto bad-news Brooklyn streets and into the heart of the projects -- where in the movie's opening scene a 12-year-old gets wasted in a stairwell by another 12-year-old who's got a petty grievance and a handy gun.

That's just for starters.

And it's no big deal.

This is another kind of life altogether, light years from the one most of us live, so to say this movie's an eye-opener is supreme understatement. Afterward, the people of the projects aren't just statistics or tabloid headlines or a drag on the American economy.

They're just like us.

Only they live in a war zone.

"There's a tendency for people like myself to say, 'What the hell's going on down there? They're all animals, they're selling drugs, they're all screwed up.' " That gut-level admission comes from "Strapped" co-star Michael Biehn, who's best known for playing simplistic baddies himself ("Aliens," "The Abyss"). Here, he's a cop -- but one of many shadings, just like his latest case, the young man Diquan from East New York (played by newcomer Bokeem Woodbine), who tries desperately not to do wrong, but gets absolutely no support in trying to do right.

cf,bol "This project," Mr. Biehn told critics at last month's press tour in Los Angeles, "really made me feel for these kids, really made me understand that they have a lot tougher choices than I did and that my children probably will because of where they're growing up."

"Strapped," Diquan's pregnant girlfriend Latisha (Kia Joy Goodwin) isn't selling crack because of some evil impulse -- she just wants to buy her man a leather jacket, and that's a quicker way to get the bread than slinging burgers. Diquan would rather be playing it straight as a bicycle messenger, but now he needs some serious money to make Latisha's bail, and it just so happens that selling guns on the street to kids pays much better.

Neither of them wants to be where they are, doing what they're doing; Diquan says he's getting out of New York as quick as he can. But where's he gonna go? And what's he gonna do when he gets there? All he's equipped to achieve are dreams. And anger when they don't come true.

"Strapped" -- street talk for packing a weapon -- is an intense directing debut from an intense actor, Forest Whitaker, whose performances in movies like "Bird," "The Crying Game" and HBO's "Criminal Justice" have been almost frightening in their fierce concentration.

"Strapped," too, is wound tight and tense, with a sampled-rap soundtrack (supervised by Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay) that helps heighten the emotional ante. You can almost taste the dread, the rage, the despair on those streets.

"My only concern," Mr. Whitaker says in a phone interview, "was to allow you to understand the way these people felt, the way they thought -- their emotions, their pains, their loves. And through them -- not from outside."

On those terms, the director says, Diquan is "a classic tragic hero. He wants to do right, and he's forced to do wrong. He's an inherently conservative person, who governs his life by taking care of his girl and his child -- by any means, which is a very American way. He's somebody who does these things because he has no other option. He goes to the police (to trade information for Latisha's release), and he tries to live within the structure of our country and the law, but when he does that, he gets screwed around, and hurt, and used."

No easy answer

What's interesting, though, is that Diquan doesn't get used by corrupt cops out of racist imperatives. That answer is too easy. Mr. Biehn's cop on the weapons detail really does want to get those guns off the streets, and he really does want to help this kid. But the bureaucracy subverts them both. And the very laws that Diquan has offended are quite nicely protecting the real big guns in the thriving interstate gun trade.

"Selling guns in the United States of America is legal," Mr. Whitaker emphasizes, in the midst of a heated verbal torrent from this often shy performer. "Selling them on the street is not, but selling weapons in the United States of America is legal. If anything, you can compare them to the bootleggers who sold alcohol during the Depression. They're not out robbing stores. They're doing something this country has sanctioned."

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