Light It Up (1999)

30 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are times in a high-schooler’s life in which he or she just wants their voice to be heard, and no one is listening. And when the school is as messed up as the one in “Light It Up,” you can kind of understand the anger and confusion the students feel when they just want to state what they want or maybe even need. Things can get worse when authority figures don’t give them the type of attention they need, and that tends to lead to extreme measures. That’s what happens in “Light It Up,” which is about how six high-school students who stage a hostage situation in their own school in order to get their points across.

Now, despite how that sounds, this is far from an exploitative thriller or a hostage-negotiation film. While some of those elements are present, they’re not what are important to the story. Instead what the film focuses more on is character development and getting its message across. People who want to boycott a film like this need to consider what they haven’t seen more than what they’ve heard, because “Light It Up” is an effective urban drama.

It begins with a typical day at a ramshackle Queens high school, except for a newcomer on campus—the new security guard, former cop Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker). Jackson is ready to take force to get these kids in line. And he’s ready to jump into action when a group of students start to protest when their favorite teacher, Mr. Knowles (Judd Nelson), is suspended. When a couple of the students try to reason with the principal, they are suspended too. When they argue, Jackson is there to break it up. But the situation becomes dangerous when a kid he apprehends gets ahold of Jackson’s gun and it accidentally fires, hitting Jackson’s leg. When Jackson pegs it on the kid and tries to take him away, another kid grabs the gun and holds Jackson at gunpoint. So he, the kid, and four others hole up in the school’s library, holding Jackson hostage.

The group is led by star-athlete Lester (Usher Raymond). On his side are Ziggy (Robert Ri’chard), an innocent artist who inadvertently started all this; class-brain Stephanie (Rosario Dawson); pot-dealer/class-clown Rivers (Clifton Collins, Jr.); pregnant loner Lynn (Sara Gilbert); and Rodney (Fredro Starr). Rodney is the only gang member among the group, but the media has already labeled the others as being criminals. When the kids realize the gravity of this situation, they decide to use it to their advantage. As they negotiate with the H.N., Audrey (Vanessa L. Williams in a thankless role), they decide to make global news as they make their demands. Their demands to be heard and to improve their school surprise everyone, but also earns support from most of the public.

As the film continues, we get to know these kids in ways that Jackson never even bothered to do before he labeled them immediately as bad people. Ziggy comes from an unwelcome home, which is why he secretly lives in the school. The main reason he freaked out in the first place was because Jackson was going to call his parents to take him home. And when Jackson sees the scars on Ziggy’s back, he sees why Ziggy wasn’t going to have it. And also when he sees Ziggy’s true gift for drawing and painting, he can also see his pure innocence. Rightfully so. This is a kid you don’t want bad things to happen to.

Lester is a strong leader, but there are layers of depression and tragedy hidden that he doesn’t like to talk about. The reasons for that come through when he finally lets out his reasons for hating the police. Stephanie is the type of smart, intelligent student you wouldn’t expect to find in a situation like this, but any situation in which she can help somebody is one she can’t say “no” to easily. Lynn’s plight is obvious (unexpected pregnancy and a jackass boyfriend who wants no part of it), but it’s still effective enough. Rivers doesn’t have much, but his presence is welcome to lighten things up a bit. Actually, I take it back. If he wasn’t the only one on drugs, I don’t think he would have taken things seriously, and there are times when he does; he’s not dumb and he’s very reliable. Rodney is the closest thing to a criminal-type, is only there to hide from a gang that would like their way with him, would like to shoot Jackson if he had the gun and not Lester, and also has a hard time controlling himself.

We even get to know Jackson a little bit, as we find out why he’s a security guard at a public school instead of a police officer on the beat. We see that he lives in a cruel, difficult world just like these kids do. And he realizes that too, so there’s also room for him to grow in this film.

When the film focuses on these characters’ plight and growth, “Light It Up” works. The actors all do solid jobs, especially Forest Whitaker, Usher Raymond, and Robert Ri’chard. And even when the script goes for certain clichés that I’m not sure could be helped, the situations are kept fresh for the most part. You could argue that sometimes it preaches, but these are issues that need to be addressed. In that case, “Light It Up” is also an effective parable that speaks about the American inner-city public school system. The questions asked early on in this film are legit, and authority is too uptight and too unfocused to answer them.

And I should also mention that “Light It Up” is also a nicely-done thriller as well. The situations with these kids, the gun, and their hostage is tense, and the film knows that. Sure, the outcome of the hostage situation may be predictable for some, but there are moments when you find yourself not knowing exactly how certain situations, particularly in the final act, will play out. For all you know, somebody could die.

There was true effort put into “Light It Up” that made it into an effective, well-acted film that works as a coming-of-age story, a thriller, and a cautionary tale.

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