The last time Judge Bill Gibron spent a Saturday in the park, he thinks it was the Fourth of July.
One day can change your life forever.
Steve and John Eric have been friends for a long time. While one hopes to attend college, the other works in a local fast food restaurant to support himself and his girlfriend. As members of Missouri's African American community, they look forward to Springfield's annual Park Day celebration. This year is no different. But both boys find themselves at a crossroads. Steve is getting a hard time from his parents about attending school. He has sat back a couple of years, and has been working in a shoe store while making up his mind. While Steve has dreams of being a writer, his father fumes at the thought of his son wasting his life so. Steve also has an eye on John Eric's sister Tamala, but she seems lost in a private world of the future and the futile. Her mom is a trifling tramp, and her brother is stuck in that dead-end service industry job, dividing his money between a flophouse hotel room and the local drug kingpin.
As day moves to night and the party moves from the park to the local university, bonds are tainted and tested. Will Steve give in to the whims of his father? Will John Eric avoid the debt-collecting dope don? Has Tamala stumbled into a situation for which she is ill-prepared? It will take magic, an act of violence, and a healing heart to resolve all the problems plaguing this particular Park Day.
Part visual feast, part formulaic urban drama, Park Day draws from so many divergent elements in the cinematic well that it can't help but come up somewhat dry in the end. Mixing comedy, racism, character studies, mysticism, drugs, the clash of cultures, and date rape into a single story arc would test even the most seasoned moviemaker. But this doesn't stop first-time feature writer/director Sterling Macer, Jr. from stumbling onto and through these and several other narrative shifts throughout the course of his fascinating, flawed film. Trying to establish, intertwine, and resolve several individual issues while building up a believable background of ethnic community and racial apathy is just too much for one movie to maintain. But oddly enough, Macer is at his best when the stakes are high and he has to rise to the occasion. It is in the obvious slapstick and homeboy boasting where his creativity collapses.
Some critics have compared this film to American Graffiti, claiming it covers much of the same indecisive ground as George Lucas's love letter to the end of the '50s. But this African American look at similar life choices facing a group of disaffected young people is simultaneously more truthful and tired than that considered cruising-and-college classic (which today looks far more romantic and substantially less realistic than it did back in '72). Graffiti pined away with a nostalgia based in innocence and youth. Park Day wants to destroy a past immersed in prejudice and disenfranchisement. Macer wishes to point out that, even in the wooded wonderland of Middle America, the ghetto still exists…as a state of mind.
When it deals with reality, Park Day does have some problems. The actual Springfield, Missouri festival that the movie is named after (a weeklong event commemorating a 1906 public lynching) is given a brief voice-over explanation, but we really never get why the celebration is so important to the black community. Also, the high school / college dynamics are never really clear. Our hero Steve is supposedly four years out of school (which would make him around 22?) and his sister, Sophia, is dating a guy who tried for the NFL draft until his knee blew out (so she is even older?). But all of this is just guesswork, because a timeline of interpersonal proportions is missing. Steve and his same-aged buddy, the Jheri-curled John Eric, act like teenagers a lot of the time, and don't command the presence of maturing young adults. Indeed, the gap between parent and child widens whenever the generations clash. About the only emotionally mature individual in this whole mix is Tamala, and even she ends up on the wrong end of a Roofie cocktail when she heads out to mix it up with the local lunkheaded frat boys (who are younger than she is?).
Macer lets too many of these practical matters meander off as he pursues greater goals of glory. This means we never discover what happens to John Eric or his white girlfriend, how he and Tamala's drugged out mother turn over a new leaf, what Sophia does with her footballing wannabe boyfriend, or if Steve ever becomes a writer. Perhaps these are all issues left over for another kind of movie. But they indicate a narrative sloppiness that undermines some of Park Day's delicacy.
When it wants to, however, Park Day can pour on the ethereal ambiance with the best of them. Reminiscent of moments from Jonathan Demme's Beloved or Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, the dream sequences that plague both Tamala and Steve are magnificently realized, filled with well-crafted imagery that sells the shimmering, sinister quality intrinsic to each otherworldly experience. Macer also moves the lens fluently through haunting vistas and landscapes, so we get a real rural feeling for New Haven, Springfield and the surrounding areas. Whenever Brock Peters's voodoo hut is visited (this iconic character actor is really wasted here in the standard misunderstood bogeyman role), there is a wonderful atmosphere of enchantment and dread. Macer is not afraid to work in silence (many first-time independent directors are)—he allows his settings to sell some of the story. But when he comes crashing back to reality, he is confronted with the same slapdash situations.
Thankfully, the acting is so uniformly decent that he doesn't have to worry much about the facets the director fumbles. Hill Harper gives Steve the necessary yearning to break free, and when paired alongside newcomer Lande Scott's Snoop Dogg drawl, they make an interesting dichotomy (how these two became friends is, again, never explained). Monica Calhoun's Tamala borders on the kind of "sistas" one sees at poetry slams shouting out tirades about brutish treatment by bestial boyfriends, but she manages to measure her fire with fragility to round out her character. With other winning turns by Edwin Morrow, Ron Canada, and Darius McCrary, Park Day is loaded with professionals, all helping to pull this film over its potential pitfalls.
And it more or less works. Even with all its problems and pandering, Park Day still manages to engage and enlighten. And thanks to Urban Entertainment, an upstart company focusing on creating opportunities and diversity through a distribution deal with Lightyear Entertainment and Warner Bros., Park Day gets special treatment on DVD. Even though its low-budget values are noticeable, the 1.33:1 full screen image provided is clean and clear. Blessed with some minor grain and very few compression problems, the transfer is full of mood and ambience, as is the Dolby Digital Stereo sound. With easily understandable dialogue, some excellent hip-hop and jazz scoring, and a wealth of atmospheric attributes, the sonic situations are first-class.
Regarding the bonus content, we are treated to a full length, scene-specific commentary by director Macer that is a textbook primer for first time filmmakers. With nothing but praise for his cast and crew, Macer rarely has a bad thing to say about anyone involved with this project. While a little too self-absorbed sometimes, Macer's narrative still adds a great deal of insight into this film's creation. The "Retrospective," which is just a fancy title for a behind-the-scenes documentary, features interviews with several of the key actors and actresses in the film. While nothing too spectacular is presented, we do walk away with an appreciation of the dedication and desire instilled in some of these actors.
Park Day is, perhaps, only significant to anyone who has grown up and experienced the rural radiance of Springfield, Missouri. Or maybe the story is so centered in the African American experience that it's hard for those outside the community to recognize the relevance. But simply as entertainment, Park Day succeeds—if only in somewhat minor measures. While no one will confuse it with a mainstream work of overt professionalism, it is an excellent homemade homage to that singular time in life known as the coming of age.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Director Sterling Macer, Jr.
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