Director Dutton's skill is telling in 'First Time' TV preview

September 06, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Charles (Roc) Dutton can direct. Boy, can he direct.

Dutton, the acclaimed stage and television actor from Baltimore, makes his directing debut tonight with the HBO film "First Time Felon," and I wouldn't be surprised if his work behind the camera earns him an Emmy nomination.

At one point, he takes a huge, biblical scene of people fighting a flood and distills it into a video tableau reminiscent of a Winslow Homer painting. In another sequence, he starts with a tight shot of two angry men standing face-to-face in a tiny room, and before he's through, you can feel their sweat and rage. Yeah, Dutton can definitely direct.

But the best thing about his direction in "First Time Felon" is that he uses his fluency in the language of pictures not to dazzle but rather to tell the story of a young man's mythic journey to redemption and to send an urgent social message.

"First Time Felon" is the story of Greg Yance (Omar Epps), a 23-year-old member of the Vice Lords gang from Chicago's West Side. It opens with Yance being arrested for selling heroin.

After a few days in the hell of Cook County jail, a judge offers Yance the option of five years in the state penitentiary or four months in an experimental, Marine-style boot camp.

Not surprisingly, Yance opts for the latter, which is where his journey begins.

The trip has the classic markings of what Joseph Campbell described as the "mono-myth" or universal hero quest.

After being separated from his community -- the gang and neighborhood -- Yance finds himself first in the netherworld of the prison and then the dark forest of the boot camp.

He has to fight his way to a higher consciousness before he can return to society.

He is helped in his battles by a mentor, but this is not a kindly old Merlin figure like the one found in Arthurian legend. This one is a tough-as-nails sergeant named Calhoun (Delroy Lindo), who challenges Yance to be a man instead of a punk.

When Calhoun sees Yance showing off for his comrades at the boot camp by pointing his finger at the back of another guard's head and mimicking the action of shooting a gun, Calhoun pulls Yance into a broom closet and tears into him with a speech you won't forget.

Most of it can't be printed here. In fact, a real sense of it can't even be suggested, because of the frequent use of the "n" word and various profanities.

But it begins with Calhoun saying, "Do you know you're the enemy? I'll bet [you] don't even know there's a war going on. There is one. It's between honest, hard-working, law-abiding black folks and [people] like you."

In an interview with The Sun, Dutton said Calhoun is speaking for the "silent black majority": He's denouncing black people like Yance who don't take responsibility for their lives and wind up preying off the community.

Whoever he is speaking for, Lindo is magnificent in the scene. The contempt his character feels for Yance is felt in the hiss of every "s" he utters in that suffocating closet.

Yance, Calhoun and the other inmates soon find themselves in the all-white rural community of Niota, called upon to help tTC sandbag against raging floodwaters from the Mississippi River. It is here in an epic man-against-nature setting that Yance will find "his own humanity," in the words of Dutton.

But the question remains whether that discovery will be enough to sustain Yance when he graduates, goes back to his neighborhood and faces the reality of trying to find a job when he's a convicted dope dealer. Just because Yance returns to his community a transformed human being doesn't guarantee transcendence.

This is not a movie with an easy or a perfectly happy ending. Dutton could have gone for a feel-good final sequence and left viewers feeling all warm, fuzzy and righteous. But he says he wanted to remain true to the real-life Greg Yance and his story.

"To make it an everything's-all-right-with-America kind of ending would have been wrong," Dutton says.

The first-time director seems to have made almost all the right choices in "First Time Felon." Here's hoping Dutton continues his career behind the camera.

Hollywood could use a few good filmmakers with the social conscience of a Charles Dutton.

'First Time Felon'

What: Movie premiere

Where: HBO

When: 9-10:50 tonight

Director: Charles Dutton

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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