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‘South Central’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 18, 1992

Another L.A.-side heartbreaker about young black men caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of hatred, incarceration and bloodshed, "South Central" purposely pulls you down. Then, with its clarion call to black fatherhood, it lifts you back up again.

If it's loaded down with Message, it's armed to the teeth with conviction -- and a powerful performance from Glenn Plummer. The movie's ultimate mission to save a child's life becomes transcendentally vital.

The story begins in Los Angeles, 1982, when Plummer, a member of the fledgling Deuces gang, has finished a stretch in youth jail. His problems are only beginning. The 'hood is now run by pimp Kevin Best, who's also plying Plummer's girlfriend LaRita Shelby with cash and PCP.

More important, Plummer learns that his girlfriend's new baby, Jimmie, is also his. Egged on by Deuces leader Bryon Keith Minns, Plummer plans a confrontation with Best. A gunshot later, Plummer's back in the slammer -- this time with the big boys. When he refuses to name names for a lenient sentence, he gets 10 years.

At first, the violence, unconscionable references to "bitches" and widespead use of crack and PCP raise serious questions about the filmmakers themselves. You wonder if "South" is having an R-rated blast in the lip-service guise of putting it all down. Minns only wants to run the pimp out of town to corner the drug market himself, as well as "protect our 'hood and our bitches." The Deuces are supposed to be the heroes? In addition, there's a horrifying act of violence -- possibly the worst you'll see all year -- in which a child is shot in the back.

But there's method to the madness. "South" parts ways with Minns, just as jailbird Plummer does, when he learns the Deuces' leader is employing now 10-year-old Jimmie (Christian Coleman) to steal car radios. Frankly, the rest of the story reads like the worst kind of didactic corn. Pre-jaded kid Coleman learns from nurse Starletta Dupois that ping pong's nicer than pool and that arms are for hugging. In prison, Plummer is saved from racist prisoners by Muslim, quasi-mythic prisoner Carl Lumbly ("Ali"), who then makes Plummer read W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders. Plummer puts on his spectacles and sees the terror of his ways. "I feel like my brain is swelling," he says.

"Go find your boy," Ali says later. "Save his life."

A bare-bones outline ignores the performances, the stirring music, the close-in camerawork and the direction of Steve Anderson. The emotional punch and atmosphere of the movie soar through any hokiness. Plummer's search for the son he never saw grow up becomes a powerful odyssey. In a gun-toting finale, in which blood ties are pitted against man's atavistic need for revenge, and willpower takes on firepower, the winner is Plummer. He transforms a potentially thankless (and catcalling) role into heroic triumph.

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