Political Film Society - Light It Up


PFS Film Review
Light It Up


 

When Light It Up begins, we view run-down Lincoln High School in Queens. Principal Armstrong (played by Glynn Turman) has assigned Dante Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker), a highly decorated police officer who is on leave due to family stress, to deter school violence by making his presence known throughout the hallways. One of his first acts is to hassle Zacharias "Ziggy" Malone (played by Robert Ri'chard), the film's narrator, who is drawing on a sketchpad while seated on a staircase; his idol is the artist featured in the Political Film Society-nominated film Basquiat (1996). Basketball playing champ Lester Dewitt (played by Usher Raymond) comes to Ziggy's defense, whereupon Jackson asks him to "assume the position"; the incident ends when Ziggy urges Lester to back off. Lester and Ziggy then go to their next class, where Mr. Knowles (played by Judd Nelson) presents a lesson on the nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., though not all students have textbooks or chairs. Soon, a gust of wintry wind breaks the window of the classroom, so Mr. Knowles asks the class to seek warmth in the hall while he scouts for another place to hold class. Since the school principal insists that the students must leave the hallway, and both the auditorium and library are jammed, the teacher takes the class to an adjacent fast food restaurant. The principal, on learning that the class was held off campus, suspends Mr. Knowles. Five students, however, object vehemently to arbitrary punishment for such a dedicated teacher without due process; in addition to Lester and Ziggy, they are straight-A Stephanie Williams (played by Rosario Dawson), the Student Council President (played by Marcello Robinson), streetwise Rodney Templeton (played by Fredro Starr), and potsmoking Robert "Rivers" Tremont (played by Clifton Collins, Jr.). Jackson, summoned by the principal to end the altercation, uses excessive force against Ziggy. When his service revolver falls on the floor, Ziggy picks it up to hold the officer at bay; while trying to take the gun away from Ziggy, Jackson is injured accidentally by a bullet, and the gun again drops to the floor. At this point Lester takes possession of the gun but does not know what exactly to do until he realizes that he can hold the officer hostage in the library. Four fellow students participating in the altercation support him; a sixth student, already in the library, becomes part of the rebellion without an apparent cause. When a fire alarm is pulled, the school is evacuated except for the seven in the library, as the principal makes no effort to engage in dialog with the students. The rest of the film deals with how New York authorities try to end the unplanned taking of a hostage, while the media exploit the situation. We also learn about some of the problems of the students: Lester, it turns out, is trying to get back at the fact that his unarmed father was shot dead by NYPD; scars on Ziggy's back indicate that his father beats him; Lynn Sabatini, the sixth student (played by Sara Gilbert), is pregnant because she wanted to make love but did not even receive the kiss that she wanted so badly. Captain Monroe (played by Vic Polizos), the police officer in charge, seeing one of his own in jeopardy, prefers to use force. Officer Audrey McDonald (played by Vanessa L. Williams), dispatched to negotiate an end to the hostage-taking crisis, is much less successful than Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator (1998) because the Captain trumps her with support from the Police Commissioner, who wants the siege to end before the morning news. The students make reasonable demands on the Internet (reinstate Mr. Knowles, buy more textbooks, fix the broken window and roof leaks), but none are met, and ultimately the police break into the school. As the SWAT team draws near the library, Ziggy takes them to the school's attic, a sanctuary where he has painted a mural that impresses all, and then Lester takes Jackson to the roof for a showdown. Unexpectedly, Ziggy suddenly appears on the roof, is shot by helicopter police sharpshooters by mistake, and the siege ends. In the epilog we learn that Jackson testified sympathetically for the students, most of whom served time, though Lynn had a child and left town with a countenance radiating happiness with motherhood. Lester and Stephanie went on to college with ambitions of becoming a doctor and a lawyer, respectively. Directed and written by Craig Bolotin, Light It Up demonstrates that educational standards are going down because students translate the signs of neglect of the school's physical facilities to mean that they are expendable. According to the tagline, "They don't want to be heroes, they just want to be heard." In other words, students seek rational dialog, while adults are too busy feeding egos, blindly obeying higher authority, and calling for the use of force rather than reason. Most characters in the film are African Americans; the whites are the teacher, the pregnant teenager, and the police captain. However, the issue is not race; instead, the message is that inner-city school violence, urban disorder, and educational decay can be traced directly to fin-de-siècle adult hypocrisy or, as world-famous peace scholar Johan Galtung would say, to the structural violence of American society displayed by such obvious contradictions as the insistence that students must excel while denying them textbooks, comfortable classrooms, and supportive school administrators. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Light It Up for an award as one of the best films of 1999 in raising political consciousness of the need for peaceful solutions to social problems. MH

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