Judge Michael Rankins knows who instigated the Watts riots: Mary Stuart Masterson.
Leaders are not chosen. They're called.
"And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, 'Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.'" (Luke 9:47-48, New King James Version)
Facts of the Case
Richard Kelly (Cedric Sanders, The Ten) is a young man on the rise: a bright, charismatic UCLA graduate who's just landed a plum entry-level job at a major corporation. But the year is 1965, and Richard Kelly is black—and living in the Los Angeles neighborhood called Watts. When the now-infamous riots break out, Richard finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, and is falsely accused of assaulting a police officer.
As a condition of his probation, Richard enrolls at Wesbury, a theological seminary where he is the only nonwhite student. Amid the school's racially intolerant atmosphere, Richard is championed by its progressive president, Alan Beckett (William Devane, 24), who envisions himself Wesbury's Branch Rickey to Richard's Jackie Robinson, and professor Kate Allison (Lauren Holly, NCIS), a former missionary to Africa who gradually warms to Richard's struggles. Richard finds his true mentor, however, in Samuel Benton (Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman), the custodian and groundskeeper who lives in a basement apartment below the seminary campus with his Jamaican wife Bessie (Starletta DuPois, First Sunday).
Richard's life boils with conflict: with the students and teachers at Wesbury, most of whom are less than enthusiastic about the integration of their hallowed halls; with forces behind the scenes threatening his scholarship, his freedom from prison, and his future career; and with his life back home in Watts, where Richard reconnects with his streetwise childhood pal Roscoe (Cory Hardrict, He's Just Not That Into You) in an effort to obtain funds for Richard's mother's medical care.
Ultimately, though, Richard's greatest battle is with himself, as he tries to balance his desire to stand up and fight against the injustices he faces, with the more pragmatic approach of going along to get along.
Reviewing a film as self-consciously "inspirational" as The Least Among You is tricky business. Certain aspects of the production make it almost critique-proof: the motivations of the creative team are laudable; the true-life story behind the fictionalized narrative is uplifting; the picture aims squarely to serve the needs of a specific niche audience that is underserved by the larger entertainment industry.
In the end, however, Roger Ebert's time-honored principle still applies: It's not what the film is about that matters, but how it is about it. Against that guideline, The Least Among You qualifies only as a middling success. It does some things quite well, but misses the boat almost completely in other important areas.
The positives first. Writer-director Mark Young worked on the screenplay for more than a decade before finding producers willing to bankroll the project, and his affection for the subject matter shines through. The cast is solid, and the production values are reasonably good for a film whose budget probably didn't amount to a week's per diem on a major Hollywood release. And—I don't mean this at all unkindly—the film doesn't aspire to be more than it is, so it mostly reaches the level at which it's targeted.
That latter issue, on the other hand, also creates problems for the film, when viewed strictly from a cinematic perspective. Because the intended audience is evangelical (which is to say socially conservative, predominantly Caucasian) Christians, the film addresses certain elements with sledgehammer force (i.e., the religious subtext, moments of which are so inelegantly billboarded that the filmmakers might as well have added flashing subtitles reading, "Hey, look! It's Jesus!"), while dancing so delicately around others (i.e., race, particularly in the context of the civil rights movement blazing across America during the story's timeframe) as to render them hollow. The result is a picture that will appeal to its base, but can't help but leave the entire rest of the viewing public feeling unsatisfied.
Young's inexperience as a director also hampers the film, not so much in terms of narrative—which he handles quite well—but rather in the more subtle techniques of establishing scene and tone. I never once believed, for example, that the events I was watching were actually taking place in the 1960s. The look and feel of the movie, its dialogue, and even its casting and grooming choices (there's not a single period-accurate '60s hairstyle on display) are too contemporary. The astute viewer will be constantly affronted by the fact that these are 21st-century actors playing roles, and not authentic men and women from the era under consideration.
That's not to say that the actors don't try their best with what they're given. Cedric Sanders, whose work was unknown to me previously, makes a pleasant impression in the demanding lead role. Sanders's talents better suit his character's quieter scenes than the moments requiring a bigger screen presence, but he's a young actor to watch. The film's marquee names—Louis Gossett Jr., William Devane, and Lauren Holly—each effectively, even passionately, portray the kind of cookie-cutter role he or she could play even during REM sleep. (Question: How many times in his career has Devane exercised his riff on a duplicitous type who might be either good guy or villain? Answer: Dozens.) The one standout among the supporting cast is Cory Hardrict, who brings a nice edge to the thankless role of Richard's drug-dealing running buddy from the old 'hood.
The Least Among You buys a modicum of good will with its encouraging—albeit predictable—story and noble intentions. For the people it's designed to please, those will be sufficient. Discriminating viewers who prefer their social messages wrapped in more nuanced attire will find this film wanting. For a rainy afternoon with the family, though, it's still more palatable than yet another Transformers blockbuster.
For a niche release, The Least Among You gets a surprisingly good DVD presentation, although the quality lies mainly in the supplemental content. The audio and video elements serve the feature film acceptably, although the visual aspect has that sort of gauzy appearance one generally associates more with made-for-television movies than with theatrical releases. The stereo soundtrack likewise gets the job done, but in a flat, cheap-sounding way, and with annoyingly inconsistent volume levels.
Lionsgate, clearly sensing its market for this kind of inspirational fare, has packed this disc with several worthwhile extras. Heading the pack is Footprints in the Garden, a 21-minute interview with the Rev. Dr. Charles Marks, whose real-life story provided the basis for The Least Among You. Dr. Marks enables the viewer to place the film's fictionalized account into its true context, as well as answering the essential question: Whatever happened to "the real Richard Kelly"?
In a separate 16-minute segment, the film's editor, Omar Daher, and the composer of its score, Mark Kilian, are interviewed. There's nothing here to suggest why these two gentlemen were chosen for this distinction, other than that their observations couldn't be shoehorned into the standard video press release that's also included. Still, both men provide interesting insights into their approaches to their respective contributions, helping the audience understand how editing and music add dimension to the storytelling.
The behind-the-scenes featurette (also 16 minutes) is a nicely executed example of its genre. Writer-director Mark Young is the lead interviewee, but most of the key cast and crew members make appearances as well. The minidoc touches on almost every aspect of the production, from cinematography and set design (a former juvenile detention center was transformed into the seminary campus) to acting.
Four deleted scenes can be viewed individually, or in continuous mode. Although the first of these, entitled "Riot," is nothing more than an alternate version of an early scene in the completed film, the second, "Easter Dinner," is an extended flashback to Richard's boyhood. One can understand how this much back-story would have ground the narrative flow to a halt, but it's a worthwhile development of the lead character and his motivations. The remaining two scenes, "Parole Officer" and "Extra Credit," don't add much to what we already have, but warrant a look.
Not a dreadful film any means, but one this reviewer wishes had more courage in its convictions and less soft soap. As empathetic as I am toward the filmmakers' themes—I'm a person of faith myself—I can't let them slide on the watered-down execution. If The Least Among You dared to shock and challenge its target audience instead of pandering to them, it might have moved up from least to greatest.
Pronouncing this film guilty seems a trifle harsh. The Judge gives it a slap on the wrist and excuses it with time served. Court stands in recess.
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