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'Light It Up': Preaching From The Choir

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 1999


    'Light It Up' Usher Raymond and Forest Whitaker star in "Light It Up." (20th Century Fox)
"Light It Up," an earnest urban drama reminiscent of 1985's oh-so-suburban "Breakfast Club," is also inspired by the sticky nobility of "Dangerous Minds." Only in this case, Judd Nelson substitutes for Michelle Pfeiffer as the dedicated outsider giving it up for inner-city kids.

This formulaic, preachy movie was written by Craig Bolotin, who made his directorial debut with the 1993 teen romance "That Night." It's more plausible than the fluffy "Dangerous Minds," in which Pfeiffer tamed her troubled class with help from the picture's oldies soundtrack. Along with a more contemporary mix of hip-hop, pop and R&B tunes, "Light It Up" benefits from affecting performances from a gifted cast headed by R&B heartthrob Usher Raymond.

Raymond plays Lester, a star athlete at a dilapidated Queens high school, who leads a class protest with the beautiful, college-bound Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), after their favorite instructor (Nelson) is fired for keeping it real. Though the rally is peaceful, the fusty principal orders the tough-talking, baton-wielding policeman-in-residence (Forest Whitaker) to force the kids back to their desks.

When a shot is fired and the cop is accidentally wounded, SWAT teams are summoned, the building surrounded and six of the protestors are barricaded inside with Whitaker as a hostage. The NYPD, the media and the school bureaucracy assume that the protestors are gangbangers, a misperception that the kids must correct if they are to survive the crisis and make the most of this public platform.

After years of neglect, the kids realize that this is an opportunity to be heard. And they have a lot to say about the broken windows, lack of textbooks and freezing classrooms. Their list of demands also include fixing the leaky roof and rehiring their beloved teacher. Alas, the NYPD's understanding negotiator (Vanessa L. Williams) is unable to prevail against her small-minded, impatient superiors.

Along with Raymond and Rosario, the players include film newcomer Robert Ri'chard as a sensitive artist; Clifton Collins Jr. as a hip dealer; Sara Gilbert as a pregnant punk-rocker; and Fredro Starr as the lone gang member in the party of six.

How far we've come. To think that the disparate members of "The Breakfast Club" were only in detention and nobody was packing anything more lethal than lunch. Of course, the teens of "Light It Up" would probably love to have it so cushy. For that matter, so would most kids obliged to come of age in today's more dangerous, difficult world.

Light It Up (98 minutes) is rated R for profanity, some drug use and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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