LIGHT IT UP

R
Reviews

Composer-turned-producer Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds clearly means well with Light It Up, a tale (written and directed by Craig Bolotin) about six troubled students who take over their inner-city high school following a misunderstanding with their principal (Glynn Turman). Using a wounded police guard (Forest Whitaker) as a hostage, the students barricade themselves in a classroom and begin making demands to the outside world for a better education. As police, media and a growing number of young supporters gather around the school, a hostage negotiator (Vanessa L. Williams) tries to diffuse the situation through telephone mediations. Nonetheless, tragedy results from the standoff.

What starts out as a serious indictment of modern public-school systems (overcrowding, lack of textbooks, etc.) quickly becomes a hyperbolic, hip-hop version of Up the Down Staircase and other high-school dramas where well-meaning teachers fight the system on behalf of poor, neglected students. The heroic teacher in Light It Up is played by none other than Judd Nelson, one of the original outcast students from The Breakfast Club, the 1985 high-school 'classic' that reportedly inspired this effort.

But Light It Up's students are primarily ethnic, making Nelson's casting all the more ironic-and insulting. Not only does the film pit Nelson's Caucasian teacher against a horrifically bureaucratic African-American principal (Turman), but it also establishes this teacher as the students' most noble and intelligent role model (a sort of modern-day Mr. Chips). Williams' negotiator, the story's would-be heroine, turns out to be totally ineffectual. (Why does this talented performer still choose such mediocre parts?)

Any moral virtues in Bolotin's message about the need for a better-funded public-school system are severely undercut by the piling on of volatile incidents, intercut with scenes of syrupy character development-all shot in a slick, noir-ish, black-and-blue lighting motif. Despite some earnest performances by the younger actors (including R&B singer Usher Raymond as the group leader and rapper Fredro Starr as a gang member, in the most convincing performance), Light It Up never gets beyond stereotypes-the sensitive artist, the cynical slacker (Sara Gilbert, nearly parodying her 'Roseanne' role), and so on, with Forest Whitaker reprising his Crying Game hostage routine. The filmmakers' disrespect for their subject also extends to location: The Chicago area doubles for Queens, New York.

Finally, Light It Up seems most concerned about plugging its wares: Coca-Cola is the prominently displayed soft drink of choice of the students; every news channel from CNN to MTV News to the Fox News Channel gets its logo onscreen; the R&B soundtrack plays non-stop (and the film's trailer falsely promises Ja Rule appearing in exciting concert footage); and even The Siege, another, not-so-dissimilar 20th Century Fox feature, appears in a clip (as does The Negotiator). Light It Up ends up light years away from 1960s student protests and even the commercial films (such as The Strawberry Statement) of that era.

--Eric Monder