Judge Joel Pearce prefers his colors on the rocks, with a twist.
"Most of our kids are just a hug away from improving in their lives." -Kingston
As inspiring a documentary as I have ever seen, Colors Straight Up is an encouraging and powerful look at Colors United, a theater program for high school students running in South Central Los Angeles. This program works not only to keep kids out of trouble, but to encourage them to succeed at their dreams through discipline, hard work, and lots of encouraging hugs.
Colors Straight Up follows the Colors United program through one year, during a production of "Watts Side Story." Most of these students would have something to teach the Jets and the Sharks about gang life, since most of them have friends that have been shot, siblings in prison, and experience in gangs themselves. By adapting West Side Story, the students are forced to confront these issues in their own lives, consider the implications of local gangs, as well as confronting the demons that exist in their lives.
Of course, this kind of program and documentary has been done before, not to mention countless films documenting success stories for inner city youth. Colors Straight Up stands apart from these, though. It does a fantastic job of showing the tragedy of inner-city life while also showing the hope and joy that these kids experience. Many such movies have galvanized and stylized the projects, with teens miraculously transforming with the slightest application of a good role model. Here, the camera probes every part of their lives. We hear interviews about rapes, or discussions with parents about the gang situations. We see into the funerals and prisons. Other movies create a desolate world with only the faintest glimmer of hope. Here, director Michele Ohayon is willing to show us the happy moments of these families. Their lives are more complex than we are often willing to admit, and we see the fun that these students have during their time in the program and in other areas of their lives.
The other thing that sets Colors Straight Up apart is the depth and quality of the program. In order to stay on with Colors United, the students have to maintain a 2.2 GPA. It provides a safe place, yes, but it's also a tough program. They have serious dance training. They do martial arts. They do push ups. In training for the performance, each student must learn the self discipline to keep their own life on track while preparing their minds and bodies for the show. They also need to learn to work with other people. None of this would work without the efforts of the two co-directors, Kingston and Phil. Kingston is a warm and encouraging older man, firm with the students but gentle and kind. Phil is gruff and stocky, his caring for the students always showing through his tough-as-nails approach. Both of these men know exactly how to approach the kids, always building them up but never backing down. Throw as much money at the projects as you want, but it takes men like Kingston and Phil to truly make a difference.
And they do. The Colors United program has had a 100% graduation rate since 1989, and many of the students go on to college and successful lives in show business. For students like Oscar Sierra, that's quite an accomplishment. A young man with existing warrants for his arrest from his tough junior high years, he has pulled his life together enough that he helps Phil and Kingston run the show. He understands the other students, and uses his own past to show them a different way out. And his is only one of the many success stories in Colors Straight Up. Most of the students believe that they would be dead without Colors United, and from what we see of the area, they could well be right. Forget Lean on Me and Dangerous Minds. This is the real deal, and it's far more compelling and uplifting than fiction could ever be.
Docurama has done a fine job with the disc. Although the film is shot on low quality tape, there is no evidence of digital compression or flaws during the transfer. The sound is excellent too, the stereo track packing a solid punch during the music. The voices are crystal clear considering the filming conditions. The only disappointment is in the lack of extras. The main menu has only four chapter stops, with not even a trailer to be found. Additional interviews and background on the program would have added value to the package.
Even so, Colors Straight Up is a disc that educators and people in the entertainment industry will want to check out. It is powerful, honest, and hopeful, even in the toughest of situations.
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