Killing streets seem close to home in 'Zooman'

March 18, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Zooman" is in-your-face television. The Showtime film about urban violence, which premieres at 8 tomorrow night, aims to shake you up and make you angry, and I think it's going to do just that for a lot of viewers.

"Zooman" is adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller ("A Soldier's Story") from his play, "Zooman And The Sign." It stars Louis Gossett Jr. and Charles Dutton in the powerful story of a teen thug, his murder of an innocent child, and the efforts of the child's family and neighborhood to come to terms with the killing.

It's set in Brooklyn today, but it's really a western about guns, lawlessness, frontier justice and a few decent townsfolk trying to keep their neighborhood from becoming Dodge City.

Ultimately, it's also about all of us who live in cities where young peoplewith no education or moral compass, but easy access to drugs and guns, have taken control of whole neighborhoods. These self-proclaimed gangsters are a new kind of Nazi killer, murdering babies and laughing at the blood -- only they come from our very own loins, not somewhere overseas. They are our shame.

Be advised: "Zooman" plays rough in trying to make sure viewers feel as well as hear its message.

It opens with the camera showing viewers the back of a young man wearing a hood, long jacket and baggy hip-hop pants. He's standing under a bridge, facing the Manhattan skyline, urinating into the river. Yes, it's a metaphor for what he and his kind are doing to our communities.

Slowly, the young man turns toward the camera and addresses viewers directly -- a technique that instantly takes us inside the head of this monster. He uses the f-word and the mf-word a lot. The actual words are gentle compared to the hate and rage in his eyes.

"What the (blank) you lookin' at?" he says glaring into the camera lens. "You ain't lost nothin' over here, you don't need to be lookin' over here. They call me Zooman. That's right. Z-O-O-M-A (blank-blank)-N. And I don't let nobody (blank) with me."

Zooman (Khalil Kain) then takes viewers on a fast tour of his sorry, surrealistic, "Clockwork Orange"-American-style world. During that tour, he spots another teen-ager whom he has arbitrarily decided to kill.

So, Zooman opens fire with an automatic weapon. His many gunshots miss the teen, but one bullet hits an 8-year-old girl (Alyssa Ashley Nichols), who had been sitting on the front stoop of her brownstone waiting for her dad to arrive from work. We watch the little girl's crisp yellow and black dress get darker and darker with her blood until she lay dead on the pavement of a street in Brooklyn.

Much of the rest of the film is about reaction to the shooting. The girl's father, Reuben Tate (Gossett), was a former light-heavyweight boxer who now drives a city bus. He and his wife, Rachel (Cynthia Martells), had been separated, and both feel deep guilt about the girl's death.

For their teen-age son, Victor (Harper Hill), a college-bound student, avenging his sister's death somehow becomes hopelessly entwined with his notions of manhood. Revenge and further violence is urged by Reuben's cousin, Emmett (Dutton).

When none of Reuben's neighbors is willing to come forward to identify or testify against Zooman, Reuben puts a sign on his house: "THE KILLER OF OUR JACKIE IS FREE ON THE STREETS BECAUSE OUR NEIGHBORS WILL NOT IDENTIFY HIM."

The drama expands to include the battle among Reuben and his neighbors -- blacks and Hispanics -- over the sign and their conflicting ideas of what being our brothers' keeper means in urban America today.

Dutton and Gossett are as splendid as they almost always are. Kain is a revelation. But it's Fuller's story and the staging of it that make "Zooman" such a rich television experience.

It's shot on a Hollywood back lot, which should be a drawback, making it seem less realistic. But the very artifice of the setting elevates "Zoo- man" to the level of myth and symbol. The street that Jackie dies on looks just like Sesame Street. But Fuller forces us to remove the rose-colored glasses and see it as the killing floor it becomes when we allow the likes of Zooman to rule our streets.

The final scene of a showdown between Victor and Zooman -- the two images of black teen identity in the film -- takes us back to the western. It's midnight instead of high noon, and they are washed in each other's blood.

I watched mesmerized as the scene played out, and then I saw it again in a nightmare-dream after I went to bed. As I viewer, I, too, have been washed in the Zooman's blood.

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