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.
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.