Judge Mitchell Hattaway says Raising the Heights sure doesn't raise the bar.
A city divided by fear, vengeance is in the truth.
Raising the Heights is an amateurish and heavy-handed drama concerning racial tensions in New York's Crown Heights neighborhood. Its cast features a group of actors you've likely never seen before and will likely never see again. It represents the writing and directing debut of Max Gottlieb, and seemingly also represents the end of his filmmaking career. In fact, the only recognizable name in the credits is that of future Red Dragon director Brett Ratner, who is credited as the film's music supervisor, thus proving his lack of talent in yet another area.
The story ostensibly deals with the lives of Michael Stallworth (Gilbert Brown, Jr.), an African-American high-school student, and Judy Burke (Fia Perera), a television reporter who has turned her back on her Jewish heritage. Michael's family lives in an apartment building owned by Judy's mother. Michael's mother thinks the Jews are responsible for the erosion of the quality of life in the neighborhood, while Judy's mother and brother believe it is the fault of the black and Hispanic communities. Things come to a boil when Michael's sister and Judy's brother are murdered by drug dealers; Michael and his friends take out their frustrations by holding a racist teacher hostage, and Judy is the only reporter on the scene.
I can't quite put my finger on why, but for some reason Raising the Heights reminds me of a really bad After School Special. The script contains no dialogue, only speechifying; there are no characters, only stereotypes. The teacher taken hostage by Michael and his classmates is an unmitigated bigot, but he's the kind of bigot who takes a job in a predominantly black/Jewish neighborhood so he can sell cocaine to blacks and Jews in an attempt to wipe them out. (He uses some of the students as his couriers and has a vast network of connections set up before his first day on the job, which is a pretty neat trick.) The school's African-American principal is a tough-talking giant who knows the teacher is a drug-dealing bigot yet does nothing about it; he's also one of those principals you'll never find in real life: He knows every student's name and personal background and stands outside and personally greets them each morning. (Imagine Isaac Hayes cast as Mr. Belding from Saved By the Bell.) Michael's mother spits out a long diatribe about how the Jews control the media and try to make everyone believe that minorities don't have it so bad. Judy's mother and brother talk about how the blacks and Puerto Ricans need to be treated like animals. One of Judy's coworkers stands in a newsroom full of blacks and Jews and laments the fact that there aren't any "regular people" in the city before asking Judy out on a date. One of Michael's friends says whites and Jews deserved to be robbed and killed for their treatment of blacks and Hispanics. In other words, it's a muddled mess filled with mixed messages.
It's also rather laughable. Michael and his friends take out their rage on the teacher by duct-taping him to his chair and repeatedly rolling him across the floor. When the hostage situation is going down, Judy is the only reporter at the school. Imagine that—a hostage situation at a New York high school and only one television station is covering it. Even better is the way Judy communicates with Michael during the crisis: She calls him on a cell phone, and their conversation is magically picked up and transmitted back to her station and then broadcast live. (Her cameraman is also somehow able to shoot footage of Michael standing in a window even though his camera is pointed at Judy.) On top of that, only four or five cops show up to contain the situation, and the crowd of spectators gathered outside consists of twenty people. I could also point out how four different characters wear the exact same goofy t-shirt at various points in the film or how paintball pellets are used to simulate bullet hits during the murders of Michael's sister and Judy's brother, but that would just be mean. Uh-oh, too late; my bad.
The disc comes with a fairly decent transfer—it's clean and clear, and makes the film look as cheap as it actually is. There's no surround action in the alleged Dolby surround mix, nor is there any channel separation in the front soundstage; this is two-channel mono all the way, and anemic-sounding mono at that. The dialogue sounds canned, and there's not even any energy in the soundtrack's (bad) songs. What do you get in the way of extras? Zip, zilch, and nada.
Raising the Heights manages to be both patently awful and laughably bad. Skip it.
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