Paramount // 2002 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 27th, 2004
The true story of two young journalists and their award winning expose on life on the mean streets of Chicago.
I was only peripherally aware of Lloyd Newman and LeAlan Jones' story, when it occurred back in the '90s. I was even less aware that Showtime had made a fictional "based-on-a-true-story" film of it. Now that I've seen it, I'm not sure the fictionalized route was the way to go. The movie arrives on DVD courtesy of Paramount.
Based on a true story, Our America tells the tale of two African-American youths, growing up in one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods, who are given the opportunity to record a radio documentary of their urban experience for National Public Radio. LeAlan Jones (Roderick Pannell) and Lloyd Newman (Brandon Hammond, Tales From the Hood) are selected by NPR producer Dave Isay (Josh Charles, Sports Night) for the project and given portable tape recorders and microphones to document their thoughts and feelings about living in the ghetto. Once the show airs and garners some attention, however, the boys come under fire from community leaders, suggesting that Isay willingly exploited them. In order to validate themselves with a skeptical public, Lloyd and LeAlan decide to once again pick up their microphones and tackle the controversial murder of a young boy, posing the question of whether or not the violence of their harsh environment breeds more violence -- or is it something else?
The entire time I was sitting through Our America, I kept thinking to myself "I wish that instead of these reenactments, I could hear the actual radio show. I wish the real-life counterparts of the characters had participated in the film. I wish this was a documentary."
It's not a documentary, though. It's a made-for-cable movie, and it shows. The production values are low. The editing choppy. The acting, while sincere, is amateurish -- the two boys remain stone-faced and monotonous throughout. The supporting cast hardly fares better; most are called upon to deliver what they think hard-edged street kids look and sound like, and it's pretty obvious they're not comfortable in that skin. The film feels populated by the faceless "thug" extras straight from NYPD Blue. Little is required of Josh Charles, other than that he be earnest -- dammit, he cares about these kids -- and that he be white.
There's no real sense of time or place in Our America, either. While director Ernest Dickerson (Bones) may have been striving for timelessness, I would suggest this was a mistake. The events depicted in the film took place in the first half of the '90s, as both media and pop culture where finally turning their gaze inward at the plight of the young black male in urban America. Both the increasing popularity of gangster rap and Hollywood films -- love it or hate it, John Singleton's landmark Boyz N' the Hood sparked a great deal of discussion on the topic -- provided the catalyst for an examination of the cycle between poverty and violence. I would think, then, that some acknowledgement would be made of the fact that amidst this national debate, NPR made the choice to produce a radio show that would attempt to get some answers from those who lived the experience firsthand. By avoiding this (whether intentionally or not), the film misses the opportunity to give its story an historical or social context. It becomes just another boys-in-the-hood movie.
This might be okay, if the market weren't already over-saturated with similarly themed material. Here's a film that could have used its particular plot device to comment on the images we've seen dozens of times in previous works, but simply duplicates them instead. The movie has no personal voice, and though it's not a documentary it seems all too content to simply record a chronology of events without bothering to interpret them. It's as though the screenwriter, knowing that these characters are based on real people, was afraid to exercise artistic license and assign anyone in the film original thoughts or feelings. We're left with representations, where there should be people, moving along from Plot Point A to Plot Point B because "that's how it happened"; the "why" is ignored in favor of the "when" and "who." The resulting effect is something akin to the dramatic reenactments on America's Most Wanted or Unsolved Mysteries -- there's accuracy, but no connection to the material.
Director Ernest Dickerson (who also shot the film) used to be Spike Lee's DP, and he's cribbed a few of Lee's tricks for Our America. The score, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Terrence Blanchard's work, is one. The other major technique Dickerson has lifted is Lee's proclivity towards having his characters speak directly into the camera (think Radio Raheem's "Love/Hate" speech in Do the Right Thing). Whereas Lee employed this technique to convey a sense of urgency, Dickerson uses it as a conceit -- it's only used during the black and white "radio" segments (the rest of the film is shot in color). The effect of this is inherently dishonest. The boys were creating a radio show, and both them and their interview subjects speaking into the camera suggests they were creating a film documentary. If it was a visual motif Dickerson was searching for, to distinguish these scenes, grainy black and white photography is sufficient. Why not experiment with sound? Why attempt to represent an aural medium with a visual gimmick? Dickerson, a talented director in his own right, made the wrong decision here.
Paramount's release of Our America is fairly unimpressive. The 1.33:1 full screen image is rather dark, with the black and white sequences intentionally grainy but colors appearing muted and drab. The equally unimpressive 2.0 audio is presented in English only and there are no subtitles; apparently someone forgot to tell the folks at the studio that Our America is made up of more than one language. Excerpts from the boys' original radio broadcasts would have made an excellent supplement to the disc, but there are no extras to be found.
Our America doesn't work as drama and barely works as history. Though not a horrible film by any means -- it's competent, at the very least -- I can't think of a single reason to recommend it.
The Court finds Our America guilty of redundancy and squandering potentially interesting material on a disappointing film. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R