For almost three years, die-hard fans of "urban action" films have talked about director Craig Ross Jr.'s Blue Hill Avenue, calling it a modern blaxploitation classic. But except for those who had seen it at various film festivals, or somehow managed to score a bootleg copy on videotape, very few people had a chance to see the film. Now, after what seemed like an uncertain future, Blue Hill Avenue has been rescued from obscurity (at least partially), and given a home on DVD.
Chronicling the lives of four inner-city friends from the means streets of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, Blue Hill Avenue combines elements from the 'hood films of early '90s, with a '70s blaxploitation edge that recalls such classics as Super Fly. Ross starts off the film with a climatic showdown between a small crew of gangsters led by Tristan (Allen Payne), and a rival gang. Before revealing what the final outcome will be, Ross takes the story back to the beginning, when Tristan and his friends are still in high school. The four teenagers begin building a reputation as small-time weed dealers on their school campus, but their lives take a dramatic turn after a deadly confrontation with a neighborhood crack dealer. The outcome of this battle helps to decide the fate of the four youngsters, and leads them right into the path of Boston crime kingpin Bennie (Clarence Williams III). Jump ahead several years, and Tristan and his crew are now grown men, running one of the most powerful dope operations in Boston. But the lifestyle has taken a heavy toll, and as is apt to happen in films of this genre, Tristan is looking to get out of the life.
Blue Hill Avenue isn't the most original film, but it is a cut above most of the other direct-to-video urban films that have been steadily cluttering up video store shelves for the last several years. For one thing, Craig Ross is a talented filmmaker, as evidenced by his earlier, seldom-seen thriller Cappuccino. Not only does Ross know how to tell a story, he knows how to work with limited resources, and still deliver maximum results. Ross' talents also extend to his writing, as he is able to create characters with more depth than the average inner-city potboilers, brought to life by solid performances from a talented ensemble cast. As a writer, Ross is not only clearly influenced by such classic films as Super Fly and Black Caesar, he also appears to have studied the works of crime novelist Donald Goines. The influence of Goines hard-boiled tales of inner-city hoodlums permeates Blue Hill Avenue, which pays more respect to the author than the recent Crime Partners, an abysmal adaptation of Goines classic book.
The most disappointing aspect of the film is the full screen presentation that cuts off part of the picture. Considering the standout cinematography by Carl Bartels, and the way Ross composes his shots, it's a shame Artisan didn't release the film in a widescreen format. The lack of widescreen presentation is at least partially redeemed by a selection of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, and a too-brief documentary about the making of the film. The highlight of the bonus material has to be the audio commentary by Ross and actors William L. Johnson and Aaron D. Spears. These three provide one of the best and funniest audio commentaries in recent memory.
It would be easy to dismiss Blue Hill Avenue as just another urban exploitation film. But to do so would mean passing up a solidly entertaining film that deserves to be seen. Not only is it better than nearly all of the recent films meant to capitalize on interest in black films, it is better than some of the films of the late '80s and early '90s like New Jack City, which were nothing more than redressed blaxploitation flicks.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]