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'Drop Squad'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 28, 1994


D. Clark Johnson
Eriq LaSalle;
Vondy Curtis-Hall;
Ving Rhames
Under 17 restricted

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In D. Clark Johnson's provocative but uneven "Drop Squad," black brothers and sisters who have betrayed their community are being "dropped" that is, kidnapped. The victims may be buppies, drug dealers, or politicians on the take; regardless of the offense, they are snatched up by a squad of righteous militants and carted to a secret hideaway to be deprogrammed.

The main focus of this entertaining, unorthodox film is Bruford (Eriq LaSalle), an executive in the "minority development division" of a large advertising agency that produces racist commercials aimed at the black consumer. His main account is a malt liquor called Mumblin' Jack, and to promote it, he creates a hip-hop-style ad featuring a busty woman in a wisp of a bikini straddling a bottle of the product. When other black staffers protest that the ad is offensive, a pernicious-looking white executive disagrees, saying, "We're simply speaking in the vernacular of the target audience." Sadly, Bruford agrees. His job is to sell the product, he explains. By any means necessary.

Though the issues here are serious ones, Johnson -- who wrote the script with Butch Robinson -- attempts to keep his directorial debut light and satirical. His success is mixed at best. During their deprogramming sessions, the victims are humiliated, taunted and occasionally beaten by their captors. At one point, Bruford has Oreo cookies -- black on the outside, white on the inside -- stuck on his face. At times, the torture sessions play like absurdist political theater. But when one woman is dressed up like Aunt Jemima and strapped to a black plaster lawn jockey, the scene is too mean-spirited to succeed as satire.

Actually, Johnson's intentions are maddeningly hard to read. The primary conflict within the group is over methodology. Rocky (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the Squad's leader, insists that enlightenment should be achieved only through nonviolent means. But Garvey (Ving Rhames) says that times have changed so dramatically that the old, soft-sell approach is no longer effective. For his part, director Johnson doesn't register a strong opinion on either side.

Johnson's style is amateurish but energetic. Parts of the movie, which was produced by Spike Lee (he's featured in a parody commercial for General Otis Fried Chicken's new "Gospel Pak" dinner), are wonderfully inventive and provocative. And with the exception of LaSalle, who's a one-note drag, the cast is better-than-credible. Though the film lurches and falters and never really comes to much of a resolution about its subject, it's just nutty enough to carry you over the rough spots.

Drop Squad is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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