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by: Michael Dequina

Light It Up, written and directed by Craig Bolotin, is different from most urban dramas in that in emphasizes ideas more than violence; in fact, the quantity of the latter is surprisingly low for its genre. But it's too bad that not many other things about the film are quite so distinctive.

Bolotin's setup, however, is rather interesting in its complication. A popular teacher (Judd Nelson) at Lincoln High is put on suspension after taking his class off-campus without permission. His students, led by star b-baller Lester (Usher Raymond) and senior class president Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), confront the principal (Glynn Turman) in protest, indirectly leading to a physical struggle between artist Ziggy (Robert Ri'chard) and the on-campus cop, Dante Jackson (Forest Whitaker). A bullet is fired; Jackson is wounded in the leg; and Lester finds himself with the gun, holding the cop hostage. Soon, Lester, Stephanie, and Ziggy, along with drug dealer Rivers (Clifton Collins Jr.), gang member Rodney (Fredro Starr), and pregnant outcast Lynn (Sara Gilbert)--now dubbed "the Lincoln 6"--find themselves being listened to for the first time.

Neglected but largely well-meaning inner city youths come into a position of power. It's a promising premise, but before long Light It Up devolves into cliché. The hostage talks his captor into giving him a drink of water, only to attempt physical harm. The popular girl and the outcast set aside their differences and learn to cooperate. Most annoying, however, is Lester's "dark secret," which points to a deeper personal grudge against the police--as if there needed to be added justification for his rebellion.

Raymond's popularity as an R&B crooner is undoubtedly the justification Bolotin had in casting him as the lead, but that proves to not be a good enough reason. Raymond does a fairly adequate job (though his emotional scenes are rather strained), but he doesn't have the forceful, charismatic presence needed to convince as the ringleader of a group of such headstrong individuals. It's not terribly believable that Raymond's Lester can keep the hotheaded Rodney in check. Dawson has the strongest, most composed presence of the six, and she gives Stephanie a steely yet vulnerable confidence that Raymond's Lester clearly lacks.

Thankfully, Bolotin's wrapup to Light It Up, while not completely free of convention, resolves the film's issues in a realistic and satisfying manner. There is no idealistic happy ending; hard lessons are learned by all, and through them comes an inspiring sense of hope. If only all of Light It Up lived up to that conclusion.

RATING: *** (out of *****)


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