In case anyone was wondering, Judge Paul Corupe says this is not a mash-up of The Godfather, The Tonight Show, and The Education of Little Tree.
Who killed Lil' Boy?
Based on the bestselling autobiography of civil rights leader Sonny Carson, Paramount's 1972 film The Education of Sonny Carson is a coming-of-age story set on the mean streets of Brooklyn, where street gangs run rampant, drugs are a necessity, and the police brutalize suspects for little or no reason. Although the film is supposed to be a snapshot of Carson's youth during the 1950s, and the film is seemingly set in the 1970s, The Education of Sonny Carson carries a timeless quality that makes it a still-relevant look at youth gangs today.
Facts of the Case
By day, Sonny Carson (Rony Clanton, The Cotton Club) is a bright and upstanding student who wins citizenship awards, but at night, he's a thief and a hustler trying to survive his impoverished childhood. One evening while raiding a grocery store cash register with some friends for nickels and dimes, he is arrested and taken to a juvenile prison. When he finally gets out, he returns to Brooklyn and is recruited by The Lords, a local gang. Even though his father, Pops (Paul Benjamin, Escape From Alcatraz) doesn't approve of his son's affiliation, Sonny rises the ranks of The Lords and participates in rumbles with their rivals The Hawks. As he meets and falls in love with Virginia (Joyce Walker, Willie Dynamite), things seem to be going well for Sonny—at least until the leader of The Lords, Lil' Boy (Jerry Bell), is stabbed to death by a Hawk. Unable to buy flowers for his friend's funeral, Sonny desperately robs a messenger boy at knifepoint, and lands himself back in jail. This second stint behind bars is not as easy for Sonny, as he is subjected to racist cops and parole officers, witnesses the death of a friend, and learns of his father's true heartbreak. The worst is still yet to come though: on once again setting foot in his native Brooklyn, Sonny comes to the sudden realization that his old neighborhood is not the same as it once was.
A film adaptation of controversial civil rights activist and ex-gang member Sonny Carson's autobiography was an unlikely follow up for director Michael Campus after the wildly successful The Mack. Like his earlier blaxploitation flick, The Education of Sonny Carson features some truly excellent scenes of the gritty Brooklyn street lifestyle, but it works only in fits and spurts, and fails to gel completely as a blaxploitation film, a violent gang flick or even what it most wants to be, a powerful drama.
That said, there are many memorable scenes in The Education of Sonny Carson, and the audience knows they're in for something a little different very early on with a sequence that has Sonny running through "the mill," a lineup of gang members who beat the youth with pies, sticks, chains, and belts. Filmed from Sonny's point of view, it's a daunting condemnation of violence. Even more brutal is a scene that has a police detective handcuff Sonny to a drainpipe as he tries to beat a confession out of him. A bruised and bloodied Sonny remains defiant, however, as he chokes out his protests between mouthfuls of blood—a truly unforgettable moment. Campus also achieves a few remarkable juxtapositions. A gospel group sings on the street as The Lords wait on a nearby roof for The Hawks, and an all-out war is followed by Lil' Boy's funeral—an amazing piece of film, with a preacher (Ram John Holder, Cuba) delivering a fiery sermon that equates the current gang warfare with a 19th century slave mentality.
Although The Education of Sonny Carson aims for gritty realism—even to the point of using primarily non-actors—it's undercut by several scenes that are just far too contrived to be considered authentic. At one point, Sonny and his fellow Lords sit around and fantasize about achieving fame and fortune: becoming the greatest dancer that ever lived, or maybe even sailing the Queen Mary. Even before this unlikely scene of unrestrained hope and optimism, it's painfully obvious that none of these kids will see their goals, and this moment is far more Hollywood cheese than street drama. Likewise, some of Carson's well-timed and clever quips to cops and prison wardens sound more like things he wishes he could have said at the time—they just ring false.
Rony Clanton is quite believable as Sonny Carson, who was very heavily involved in the making of the film. Not only does Clanton look the part, but he and delivers an exceptionally good performance as the troubled, lonely youth. Still, he's almost overshadowed by many of the real Brooklynites who make up the smaller roles: real gang members, authentic cops, and photogenic community members that prove simply remarkable. Although few had acted more than a day in their lives, they are the ones who pull The Education of Sonny Carson back down to earth when the Hollywood sheen gets a little too bright.
Unfortunately, VCI needs to be schooled a little themselves on this release of The Education of Sonny Carson. Presented in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer, the print is washed-out and is riddled with source and digital artifacts. Too bad that the original elements couldn't have been found, because this DVD is not up to par, looking more like a VHS release. The soundtrack, presented in mono, is understandably limited, but adequate for the film at hand. Surprisingly, however, VCI has taken the extra steps to assemble a few supplements for this release—most notably a commentary track that teams Michael Campus and Sonny Carson, just before his death in late 2002. It's a touch dry, but does contain some interesting production information and features much discussion of how the film compares to Carson's real life. Also included are audio biographies for Carson and Campus, a gallery of photos from Carson's collection, the original pressbook, and a theatrical trailer.
The cover of this DVD for The Education of Sonny Carson features the tagline "If this movie doesn't make you stand proud…you don't deserve to stand at all." In fact, it's not a feel-good film at all, rather a denunciation of gang violence and an exposé of police brutality that represents a tragic tale of inner-city life. Although the film occasionally wavers from gritty reality and poignant social commentary to reveal a little maudlin schlock underneath, many scenes are so powerful that it's impossible to ignore the The Education of Sonny Carson's importance as a groundbreaking African-American film of the 1970s.
The Education of Sonny Carson is guilty of being an overlooked and unappreciated American tragedy.
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