A Search For Understanding

Preview: Showtime Airs An Unsettling -- But Worthy -- Look At The L.a. Riots From Four Different Points Of View.

April 26, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you are one of those viewers who believes that made-for-television movies are nothing but shopworn formula and that the major networks and cable channels never try anything new, you need to see "Riot," at 8 tomorrow night on Showtime.

"Riot" is not a great made-for-TV movie, but it takes great risks to try to tell one of the greatest and least-understood truths about diversity. It explores the 1992 Los Angeles riots from four different ethnic points of view on the anniversary of the events sparked by the verdicts in the Rodney King case.

The film only gets it right about half the time, but it's still more than twice as bright as anything else I've seen television do on the riots -- fiction or non-fiction. "Riot" manages the incredibly complicated trick of showing how ethnicity can make our world-views radically differ from one group to the next, while stressing that we are all hopelessly (or, maybe, hopefully) connected to each other like threads in a quilt.

The way it works is that instead of one narrative, "Riot" presents four. There's a quartet of different stories told by different directors, but they all intersect at enough key points to form a whole.

The four points of view are African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Anglo -- with directors and screenwriters from each of those groups. Each segment also has a separate starring cast, with actors ranging from Luke Perry ("Beverly Hills, 90210") to Melvin Van Peebles ("Last Action Hero"), Mario Van Peebles ("New Jack City") and Cicely Tyson ("Sweet Justice").

The film opens with a segment titled "Chasing the Dream of Gold Mountain." It's the story of the Lees, a Korean family that owns Good Neighbor Liquors in South Central Los Angeles.

Jeff Lee (Dante Basco), the teen-age son, is in rebellion against what he sees as his father's weakness, yet it is the father (Mako) who ultimately saves Jeff's life when rioters sweep through their store.

We later come to understand that several of those rioters -- including one who is killed by Mr. Lee -- come from the second segment, "Caught in the Fever," which looks at three Latino teens who join in the looting after the verdict.

Last two parts are best

By far, the most powerful segments are the third and fourth -- "Empty," about a troubled LAPD officer (Luke Perry), and "Homecoming Day," about an upwardly mobile young family man (Mario Van Peebles) who comes back to his old neighborhood to tell his mom (Tyson) that she is going to be a grandmother, only to get trapped in the violence. "Homecoming Day" is written and directed by 34-year-old David C. Johnson, who was born and raised in Baltimore.

Perry's performance is mainly what makes "Empty" work. It's not a great performance, but it doesn't need to be. What the role of LAPD officer Boomer Phillips mostly calls for is brooding, and anyone familiar with Beverly Hills sad-boy/bad-boy Dylan McKay knows Perry does brooding A-OK.

Phillips is angry about a whole bunch of things he barely understands -- his divorce, his attempt at a new relationship with an Asian-American woman, the way the press is ripping the LAPD in the wake of the King beating, the way his fellow cops "lost their cool," in his words, in their handling of King. Duty, honor, danger and rage explode inside Phillips' head as he draws his revolver, attempting to defend himself from rioters at a mini-mall.

One of the black men on whom Phillips draws a bead comes from "Homecoming Day." He was only approaching the officer for help, which makes for a tragic ending and a powerful statement about what can happen when we fail to communicate across our great ethnic divides.

Father and son

One of the pleasures of "Riot" is watching the father-and-son team of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles in action. Melvin Van Peebles, who has come to be known as the "Godfather of Black Cinema" for such films as "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song," is the kind of actor who immediately convinces you of the reality of his character and, thus, draws you emotionally into his world. And besides, he always seems to wear such nifty little hats.

A couple of warnings.

First, the language here is rough -- especially for 8 p.m. In fact, the first two segments ride a certain four-letter word in every imaginable variation almost into the ground. But this is the chronicle of a riot, after all, and this is premium cable.

Second and more important, remember that we've been conditioned to see classic Hollywood storytelling as having a linear, one-person perspective that is usually white and male. As a result, the shifting points of view and ethnic differences in "Riot" may seem jarring at first, but don't dismiss it as "disjointed" or "heavy-handed" as some of my colleagues have.

It's different, and it might be unsettling, but this is a noteworthy attempt to find a television form that can communicate multicultural truths and help us all try to "just get along."

Pub Date: 4/26/97

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