It's about change…It's about time.
Race is a tenuous and explosive issue in modern American society. In the forty plus years since the Civil Rights Act, all minority groups have seen the sins of racial injustice and the call for equality examined, explained, and exploited by the media and popular culture. Zebrahead wants to be a thoughtful and in-depth look at love, prejudice, and interracial relations. But what should have been an insightful and powerful film is instead scattershot and vague raising far more questions than it ever attempts to answer. It fails to provide any depth or clarity, and sadly functions as a dated relic, cementing its drama in stereotypes of old, and never really exploring a future of openness and inclusion. For everything Zebrahead tries to get right, it does another dozen things wrong, or inadequately. The ending leaves us feeling empty and dazed, wondering about too many ancillary issues that really have nothing to do with the main storyline. No matter how powerful the performances, or real some of the emotions are, the film is a bitter disappointment.
Facts of the Case
At a racially diverse inner city Detroit high school, seniors Zack and Dee are friends, rapping, rhyming, and riding together. The neighborhood is a place of neverending wonder to Zack, from the bombed out buildings, to lawns that "burn" when ignited (the result of leaks from a nearby chemical plant). Zack, who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, seeks solace from his widower father. Unfortunately, Dad deals with the problems life presents via meaningless casual sex and a flippant attitude towards everything. Everything, that is, except music. Dad runs a classic LP music store with his own father in the middle of a hopeless section of downtown. It is just a matter of time before the place closes, but the location holds memories and history for everyone, including Zack.
One day, white Jewish Zack runs into Nikki, Dee's cousin from East New York. She and her mother have moved to Michigan to start a new life with the help of Dee's family. Zack is immediately taken with the beautiful, dark skinned Nikki, but she is suspicious of men, the result of her single mother's upbringing and dark personal life. Eventually, attraction takes over and Nikki and Zack start dating. As they become more involved, problems arise. Nikki's mother feels that Zack is only around to "experiment" with her daughter, while local thug Nut, a tough guy with a scarred inner city child living inside him, threatens Zack, wanting Nikki for his very own. Even Dee's family, who apparently like Zack, constantly remind him that, no matter how accepted or loved he feels around them or Nikki, they are still black and he will always be white, and he should never forget that.
One night, at a party thrown by Zack's ex-girlfriend, Nikki overhears him making some questionable sexual and racial comments about her. Convinced that her mother was right, she breaks up with Zack, and almost immediately starts in with Nut, trying to break down his hard ass façade. It is soon all over even before it starts as Nut proves to be that very type of guy Nikki's mother's warned her about. Zack's eventual return into the picture infuriates Nut, and there is a confrontation at a local roller rink that ends in violence and tragedy. In the closing stages, we see blame being cast, names being called, and everyone taking sides against their friends and their family for the sake of love, race, and pride.
Sometimes a movie can be too determined. It wants to have it all: its message, its style, its performances, and its story. On the rare occasions, where it works (films like Natural Born Killers, Do the Right Thing, and Fight Club come to mind) there is usually a talented director present, his vision a clear part of the overall magic and makeup of the film. But more times than not ambition in a film, in any category, leads to frustration and dissatisfaction. Such is the case with Zebrahead. It tries so hard to be a cutting edge look at interracial romance, and in the attempt, stumbles and falls. The basic premise is simple enough: attractive new black student at a racially diverse school falls for a white Jewish boy who feels comfortable and identifies with the black community. Unfortunately, an unsubtle ham-fisted approach is taken and subplots waltz in and out without any real relevance to the main story. Since the characters are written only to represent archetypes, not real individual people, the message gets muddled, and we end up with a film that lets its rather distracting ancillary elements dominate.
Let's take Zack's dad, for example. He is perfectly embodied by Ray Sharkey (a late, great actor whose work is all but forgotten now) who exudes uncontrolled sleaze and libido from every pore. The performance makes Dad so real as to create a sense of unease whenever he is on screen. Zack is desperate to connect with his father, to understand why he lives like he does. Dad is a literal sex machine, bedding as many bimbos as he can in some bid for escape, or attention. But this is never explained. In the end, when Zack questions his dad about his mother's funeral, Sharkey has spent so long making us believe he is a deceptive slime ball that the answers sound like lies. Does this mean Zack's mom is still alive? Is Dad trying to hide something about her death? The answer on both accounts is no, of course. But this scene, coming as close to the closing moments of the film as it does, confuses things. Should we really be thinking about this?
The relationship between Dee and Zack is also fuzzy. How have they maintained their friendship over the years? It requires a leap of faith to understand it since all signs point to Dee's family being uneasy with Zack. Dee's father is constantly reminding Zack that the white man's world is horrible, and how uncomfortable he feels in it. He has no genuine compassion for Zack, only begrudging tolerance. Dee also seems fleeting in his friendship. When Nikki tells Dee about the comments from Zack and his pals, he immediately takes her side. He defends a cousin he has not seen in years over his lifelong best friend. Zack practically has to force him to be pals again. This "tolerate Zack" impression even spills over into his relationship with Nikki. It obviously grows intense (we briefly see them in bed together), but the bond itself is never explored. We never hear them talking about their feelings, or the reasons why they love each other. Without any verbal cues, we must assume it is all lust. And this seems to feed the arguments of Nikki's mother and the philosophy of Dee's father. This can't be the message the director wanted to send.
But Nut may be the biggest hurdle to overcome in the entire film. When we first see him, he is a petty hooligan. He poses no real threat to anyone, constantly being undermined by the blow hard Italians, fellow "brothers," and members of the administration. He does not come off as vicious or menacing. So when he starts to verbally assault Zack, hurling painful epithets at him one feels disoriented since they seemed to get along in school. When his jealousy over Nikki comes painfully close to sexual battery (even more so towards the end), we want to cry foul, since he seems rather shy around girls. Every attempt to humanize him, from his goofy nickname to his secret hideout complete with kittens (?) is an effort to say "Nut may seem bad, but he has a good heart. He's harmless." But we've known that from the beginning. It is clear from how he has acted. So when he transforms into a violent, heartless killer, it resonates in the only fashion it can—as a cheap plot device based within an outrageous stereotype. This destroys the drama and tension created, and makes the tragedy endured by so many in the film that much more pointless and calculated.
Ultimately, this film wants to be about connecting, about finding love and respect in the arms and heart of another human being, no matter what the color and no matter where. But all we get are philosophical grand standings. The Principal, who seems broadminded and patient, has his own personal, biased views that he makes known to Zack. The rich black Nation of Islam wannabe goes from treating Zack friendly to calling him a white devil. The broadly drawn and incredibly racist white students seem pulled from another film. All these devices are supposed to add to our outrage and the seriousness of the stakes involved. The closest we do get, however, to any real understanding or emotion (and frankly the best scene in the film) is when Zack apologizes to Nikki about his supposed insults (Zack honestly was making fun of his friends and their prejudices, not Nikki). In the scene, Michael Rapaport, who is very good here with limited material, makes a small speech about fitting in, about having and not having, that has less to do with race than with being a person, and it is quiet moving. If the entire film had been like this—uncomplicated quiet modest moments not speeches filled with outsized political rhetoric—then maybe Zebrahead would have truly been something special. Instead, it's preachy and empty.
Not everything about the film is so off the mark. The casting here is perfect, and all the acting is first rate. Director Anthony Drazan makes good atmospheric use of Detroit and the inner city. Though painfully underrepresented in the film, the actors playing the students (all except the white ones) are wonderful, bringing a gritty realism and depth to their characters that some of the adults do not have. Every scene in the school seems natural and unforced. The dialogue has the flavor of the teenage urban environment circa 1992. There is also a strong realism to the storyline; there is no manufactured Hollywood "meet cute" or manipulated, trumped up emotions. Everything (with the jarring exception of the ending) stems from the circumstances, time, and place we are dealing with. While the focus of the film wavers from time to time, the movie will make you think. True, it offers no real resolution, but maybe that was the point. Maybe this issue is so big, so beyond individuals and interconnected with culture and society and upbringing, that no happy ending or feel good speech could make everything all right.
Columbia TriStar offers a bare bones disc: no special features save for a few trailers, two-channel Dolby Surround sound, and a widescreen, anamorphic picture re-mastered for High Definition. The picture is impressive, the decomposing landscapes of Detroit looking vibrant and sharp, with excellent detail. The sound is a little muddled, especially at the beginning when establishing dialogue is occurring. Most other times though, when the old school rap blares along the soundtrack, it is not intrusive and the two-channel Dolby Surround sounds great. But since this is touted as a Sundance Film Festival Award Winner, it would have been nice to include some of that information here. Also, other reviews on the Internet point out that there were several subplots cut out of the film (noticeable here are ones dealing with the mysterious "flammable" lawn and the pretty Asian girl, Lianna Pia, who has a thing for Dee). Maybe including these would have enlightened us as to the lingering questions this film creates. Maybe they would have created more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even with its flaws, this is a fine, important film dealing with an issue that young people—scratch that—ALL people, face everyday. How members of the opposite sex, as well as differing races and cultures interact with each other, is a theme in film that is never explored often or well enough. Zebrahead does a fine job of addressing it, giving us a better understanding as to how and why multi-ethnic relationships succeed or fail. While some may argue that this is nothing more than Romeo and Juliet thrust into an urban environment, Zebrahead differentiates itself by showing us the issue of interracial relationships from the view of the African American community. Other films in the past have shown blacks as being accepting, while whites were racist and distrustful. It is refreshing to see a film that shows the concerns and the occasional callousness of all people in situations like this.
Any faults are really just nitpicks, imperfections in a young director's first feature film. Michael Rapaport is more natural here than his down-with-it television producer routine in Bamboozled, and Ray Sharkey gives one of his great final performances (he died of AIDS the following year). As a matter of fact, every actor here rises to the challenge of giving us a realistic portrait of pride and prejudice in 20th century America. The direction is surefooted, getting the most out of the cast and the locations. The film also has a great hip-hop soundtrack, reminding the listener of a kinder, gentler time when rap wasn't about violence and hate, but fun and getting funky. While films like Jungle Fever have tended to demonize, and Save The Last Dance romanticize the notion of interracial romance, Zebrahead takes a fair, levelheaded approach, and succeeds wonderfully.
In the end, we are stuck with a film that has its good intentions spray painted across the abandoned buildings that make up the bleak cityscape where the characters live and interact. We never get to know anyone beyond what they are supposed to represent, and so, when tragedy occurs, it rings false, seeming to come from nowhere. In what is otherwise a rather standard story of love and betrayal, we are left with several unresolved issues, questions that disturb and preoccupy the audience. Without answers, these dangling plot holes make Zebrahead a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful picture. The material and attitudes presented are dated, seeming to come from 1952 or 1962 rather than 1992. Once this subject may have been viewed as taboo busting and controversial (look at films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967, and A Patch of Blue, 1965). But in 2002, while there are still huge divides among the races, the notion of love among people of different colors or cultures is no longer forbidden. And if this aspect is no longer intriguing, a key dramatic basis of the film is irretrievable damaged.
Zebrahead is found guilty of tackling subject matter it was not prepared to address properly or completely. All actors involved are acquitted. A restraining order is issued against Columbia TriStar and will not be lifted until they begin to show some care and consideration with the extras on their DVDs.
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