Street Life at Its Grittiest

Friday, August 24, 2007

The latest in the Leo DiCaprio trend of stars making cause-oriented documentaries: "Skid Row," in which Pras Michel (a.k.a. one-third of the Fugees) spends nine days living in Central City East, the Los Angeles neighborhood that is "home" to some 10,000 transients.

Michel uses a hidden camera to capture the grittiest, most horrifying images of street life. There are the swarming rats, the man stabbing desperately at his veins with a heroin-filled needle and the mother combing the streets for her addict son.

Juxtapose these visuals with Michel's on-screen transformation: On his first day on Skid Row he turns down a free breakfast because it doesn't suit his tastes. Instead he good-naturedly panhandles his way to $15, then spends it all on lunch at the posh Standard Hotel.

But a week into the immersion, Michel (who founded the poverty-fighting PrAsperity Project after filming) is ranting at his film crew for their lack of sympathy and "hating everyone who's ever turned their back" on him.

Moments like these are among the movie's most compelling. They are less about finding humanity in the homeless population -- whose situation is, by the end of "Skid Row," still incomprehensible -- and more about realizing how a change of circumstance could lead even the most cocooned viewers to find dark inhumanity in themselves.

-- Monica Hesse

Skid Row Unrated, 120 minutes Contains stark footage of urban poverty. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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