Documentaries usually come in one of two forms. First, there is the exposé that concentrates on the specific subject at hand. It figures that the players and people involved are interchangeable (or at least ancillary to the actual discussion) and that the real interest lies in the issue being raised/discussed/debated. There are a myriad of examples, with Fahrenheit 9/11 being perhaps one of the most famous/infamous. The focus for the filmmaker is the proposition or thesis, not the atmosphere or oddness of the individuals taking part (though George Bush does push the boundaries of said sentiment). Naturally, the other type of documentary is one that takes an opposing viewpoint. It could care less about the circumstances or logistical situations. Instead, the concentration is on the personalities, the peculiar people who inhabit this usually normative place. Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven is a great example of this format, since the pet cemetery setting, while atypical, is no match for the customers and crew who run the place.
Colors Straight Up! tries to have it both ways. Indeed, like most modern documentaries, it uses a cinema vérité style to show how an unusual high school arts program inspires inner city kids, almost all living in the highly dangerous Watts section of Los Angeles, to dignity and personal excellence. Along the way, we meet a wonderfully diverse group of teens, many of whom have harrowing, heartbreaking stories about growing up poor and powerless. We are also introduced to the inspirational adults and advisers that make up the Colors United program. The ultimate goal of this experience is to put on a hip-hop version of Romeo and Juliet entitled Watts Side Story. So director Michele Ohayon has three overflowing pools of resources to dip from. That she takes a little from each one is understandable. That she doesn't really represent each one fully is also not much of a mystery. What is confusing is why a documentary with this much potential, this much potent material, doesn't transcend its trappings to become something truly special. Instead, Colors Straight Up! is just a very good, very informative frivolity.
Colors United (along with companion program Living Literature) was started in 1990 at Jordan High School in Watts. The basic premise of the activity was simple. By introducing disadvantaged and at-risk youth to the classics - Shakespeare, Steinbeck, etc. - and providing an outlet for their enormous talents (singing, dancing, acting, etc.) there was a possibility of steering them away from the violence, the drugs and the gang life that awaited them out on the hard knock city streets of L.A. Seven years later, Award winning documentarian Michele Ohayon stumbled upon the after school sanctuary and decided to focus on it, and a few of its participants, for a film. In particular, we meet:
Oscar Sierra - a somber, straight ahead Latino who functions as a student supervisor and coordinator for the program. A former street hood, Oscar tries desperately to keep his past mistakes from impacting his current situation.
Latoya "Lovely" Howlett - a strong, excitable African American gal with as much heart as chutzpah. Though she puts on a tough, no bullshit facade, she occasionally lets a devastating vulnerability rise to the surface.
Stanley Elam - a talented dancer, he lives inside a constant cloud of family discord. His brothers are gang members (one is currently serving time) and his mother is a homeless crack addict. Yet the boy lives for performing, since in essence, it's all he's got.
Michael Ford - one of the youngest members of the Color United company, Michael faces constant pressure from peers and from his parent. Inside, his mother warns him against the evils of the street. Outside, the thug life continuously calls.
Cynthia "Queenie" Turner - true to her name, Queenie is a diva, believing that gang and ghetto life is "beneath" her. Yet she strives to help her drug addicted sister as she uses Colors United! as a stepping stone for bigger and better things.
This main group, along with dozens of others in the program, prepare a stage show entitled Watts Side Story (part Romeo and Juliet, part talent showcase) we get a chance to see rehearsals, the minor squabbles that turn into massive misunderstandings and the ever-present threat of the outside world spoiling this near utopian ideal of kids staying straight thanks to art.
While watching it, you really wish Colors Straight Up! was better. This is not to say that the film is bad. Far from it. Actually, it's one of the more intriguing entries in the fact film lexicon. But this is a subject that just sings out for real recognition, a chance to prove that there are alternatives to keeping kids out of trouble besides the passage of new laws and strict juvenile judicial sentencing. In addition, the teens here are so talented, so much bigger than the basic performance setting they are situated in, that you want to see them get all the limelight they can. As a result, we can see the kind of movie Colors Straight Up! should be inside our cinematic minds eye - the struggles, the stand offs, the slipups and the successes. As our uplifting finale frees us from the obvious bonds of responsibility (whose fault is it, if not society, for creating such a dangerous climate for these kids to function in) we wipe a cathartic tear from our eye and go on, feeling satiated that, as bad as things are, there's a sanctuary somewhere in the world for wayward youth like these.
But that doesn't happen in Colors Straight Up! - and in reality, that's a good thing, There are no easy answers to gang related crime and juvenile delinquency. The old arguments that "kids will be kids" or "it's THE MAN keeping us down" just don't work anymore. In some ways, situations like those in Watts seem to derive from some near mystical, ephemeral place where, no matter what happens inside or outside, the community feels closed and the outside world is incensed. It's as if someone set up metaphysical barriers - make that metaphysical Caucasian barriers - and said, "As long as the problem stays in and around here, I'm happy." Yet the blame just can't come from outer prejudice and bias. In several scenes throughout Colors Straight Up! you see leaders lamenting the lack of internal controls. Preachers cry out for more neighborhood responsibility and teachers weep when punishing their pupils, arguing that the main reason they are administering discipline is because they are sick of going to funerals. So in essence, Colors Straight Up! is not about to offer a fairytale version of life in poverty. Yet it doesn't allow enough of the real world in to satisfy your sense of outrage, either.
The initial problem we have with the film is that we are kind of thrown, haphazardly, into the world of Watts Side Story, Colors United, and the life of these kids with little or no context. Almost as if we're supposed to have judicial notice of everything happening within the troubled LA community, the extracurricular program, and the play being staged, director Ohayon lets the vérité variables of her filming style control the content. So instead of starting off on a proper foundation of factual clarity, we enter a scattershot spectrum made even more jumbled by Ohayon's decision to intercut all three stories together. Certainly this technique rewards the audience later on. There are scenes in the play that so closely mimic what's happening in the actual hood that you occasionally get the two locales - theater and crime zone - confused. But to open the film in such a flummoxing manner does none of the storylines, or the individuals involved in them, any good.
Neither does the overall vérité approach, frankly. Ohayon does get the kids to sit down for a little face-to-face, but the ersatz interviews (no questions are asked) are nothing more than a chance for the teens to spout off about whatever is on their mind. Some give us insight into their inner turmoil (Stanley and Michael are excellent at expressing their pain), while others just put on a front of forced acceptance. Again, we are left wanting more, and we occasionally get it. "Lovely" is so scared strong that it takes almost the whole movie for her little girl lost to finally break through. Yet "Queenie" never really drops down from the personal pedestal she rides on. While it's great to see the hands on/all hugs approach taken by Colors United to gain trust and attention from what are basically borderline felons, the dichotomy between the program personality and the one the kids show at home is never fully realized. Instead, we occasionally feel like audience members invited to a show that started an hour before we were told to arrive. We are constantly playing catch-up and without a lot of the necessary information to help us along.
Colors United itself perhaps suffers the most under this scenario. The adults in charge get a single introductory shot (so early in the film that you almost forget it occurs) and the basic history of the program is NEVER discussed. What the audition or practice routine consists of is only hinted at, the impact citywide of such a startling success is saved for a final credits montage (how disrespectful) and, most importantly, the manner in which the theatrical and talent material is devised is left as a total enigma. Sure, it's Shakespeare (we hear Romeo's famous soliloquy to Juliet) and there is some funk/soul boogie to the songs and score, but we don't ever find out if the kids create this material, if other plays or platforms are used, and how the leads are chosen (in one scene, it appears that whoever can read a line convincingly ends up being shoved to the front). Through it all, however, the personality and the vitality of the young people still show through. If there is a single reason to stick with this documentary, flawed as it may be, it is because of the amazing teens taking part in the program.
In essence, instead of shooting for the moon, the filmmaker should have simply focused on the important issue - the members of the Colors United program. Had Ohayon just avoided the show scenes, removed much of the outside intramural activity (a group picnic is nice, but unnecessary to the narrative) and just told us the story of each one of these kids (like she did with her film on homeless women, It Was a Wonderful Life) Colors Straight Up! would indeed be something extraordinary. How often do these members of the social order get a real voice, a chance to speak their mind and be heard? They deserve to be the center of this saga, not a part of a triptych that occasionally stumbles over itself. Sometimes, a fact-based film can have it all. It can find the right combination of person, profession and particulars to make a stellar example of motion picture reality. But Colors Straight Up! tries for too much, too quickly, and only triumphs some of the time. Colors United seems like a great program. Being unable to fully endorse what it does is one of the disservices this film does to its subject. We just don't learn enough about it, or its participants, to fully back their bravery.
Presented in a 1.33:1 full frame image, Docurama's DVD release of Colors Straight Up! is quite good. The film appears free of defects, and does not suffer in the color or contrast category. We do get some grain in the darker scenes, and there are a couple of superfluous black and white sequences that look faded and fuzzy. Yet overall, this is a professional looking print without a lot of digital issues.
The Dolby Digital Stereo does an excellent job of selling the music in this movie. Ohayon made sure to load the soundtrack with the ambience of her subjects, and the slinky, sexy hip-hop and funk fill out the sonic landscape nicely. The conversations are always clear, with dialogue and/or narration up front and distortion free.
Sadly, Docurama decides to rob Colors Straight Up! of a chance at contextual completeness. Having an update about what has happened, some eight years later, to the participants in this film would have been perfect. It didn't have to be an interview featurette, or another massive making-of piece. Instead, a few text screens with some up to date pictures would have been perfect. It would have given this movie and this DVD some much needed closure. Instead, we are stuck with a bare bones offering that barely has a menu screen (we get a chapter breakdown, that's all).
It's the great documentaries that get it right. Brother's Keeper was a fascinating story made even more compelling when we meet the frail, freakish family - the Wards - at the center. The Civil War, by Ken Burns, takes one of the most misunderstood and underrepresented chapters in American history and enlivens it with as much depth and density as possible. And Hoop Dreams takes a standard story - two black youths trying to make it in the competitive world of Chicago high school basketball - and channels it into a personal AND social tragedy of epic proportions. Colors Straight Up! had the power and the potential to join their ranks. It dealt with a group of teens on the verge of either greatness or self-destruction, it had an unusual program that mixed humanities with hip-hop to reach these distant children, and it had a built-in bravura finale - the Watts Side Story showcase. But Michele Ohayon couldn't get it all to gel. Instead, the divergent elements constantly knock into and cancel out each other. While well worth your time, Colors Straight Up! does not join the canon of classic documentaries. It has to settle for a slot somewhere in the middle, which is kind of sad. These kids deserve so much more than a backup role.
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