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Earnest hood movies can be a drag when they go into preacher mode and just hammer the audience with messages. Our America, however, has some very positive elements that make it surprisingly gripping and interesting. The movie, which was produced for Showtime, tells the true story of LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman (Brandon Hammond and Roderick Pannell), two kids from the South Side of Chicago, one of the roughest examples of modern urban blight. Unlike many of their peers, who only want to sell or do drugs and have no plans for the future, LeAlan and Lloyd want to be radio stars. But not rappers or anything stereotypical like that: They want to be news commentators, observers of social issues and injustices. They want to give voice to the struggles they see every day. It's refreshing to see these two kids dream about such an intellectual and helpful path.
When we first meet the best friends (after a prologue involving a frightening apparent murder) they're on their way to an open audition for Chicago's NPR station. The transition from their ghetto neighborhood to Chicago's glistening business district is as striking for the audience as it is for the boys; It might as well be a different world, a sentiment they express later when they point out that most of their neighbors don't even realize that they live walking distance from the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago.
A similar transformation happens to LeAlan in this scene: When he enters the NPR lobby he instantly switches off his fast-talking street persona and becomes a well-mannered, polite, eloquent young man. It's quite a nice detail and is the first hint that Hammond and Pannell are more than just likeable young actors. They're extremely talented and really add a tremendous amount to this film.
It turns out that the audition is for an experimental project that NPR producer Dave Isay (Josh Charles) hopes will make the ghetto experience vivid and real for his listeners. After the kids get the gig Isay outfits them with tape recorders, headphones and microphones and sends them off to record their daily lives along with their observations. They walk through the projects with their tapes running, catching all sorts of telling details and delivering their own hardened insights into what they compare to a permanent life in the Vietnam war. Everyone who sees their headphones and mics asks if they're trying to become rappers. They discuss the limitations of their environment and reveal themselves to be less than perfect themselves (Lloyd struggles with whether or not to interview his alcoholic father, the kids tape themselves throwing rocks at cars from a highway overpass.) When the show airs they're surprised at the negative reaction from their principal and a black radio commentator to whom they'd previously looked up. These voices plant seeds of distrust in their heads of whether or not Isay took advantage of them.
The film goes further than that (the kids eventually use their newfound medium to investigate the killing that opened the film) and it's really interesting how many sides of the issue it explores, although it doesn't always get too far beneath the surface. It's nice that they do find themselves analyzing their relationship with Isay, the only white person in their lives, but the film portrays that relationship - and Isay - in a nearly saint-like light. True, the film is primarily about the kids, but the Isay character isn't fully explored, leaving Charles (who does a fine job) with a pretty thankless role. Still, Charles saves it with his honesty and sincerity. It's easy to see that Isay really wants to understand the kids' lives ("Make sure you get him shot at," someone suggests to LeAlan in regards to Isay. "Let him see the real deal.") It's just his original motivations that stay a bit unexplored.
Other characters don't really leave the realm of vague sketches. Fine actors like Mykelti Williamson, Vanessa Williams and Peter Paige are all underutilized and Irma P. Hall, currently drawing raves in The Ladykillers gets an all-too brief, but affecting, role as LeAlan's grandmother. A tiny scene where she first meets Isay and asks him "Please don't let them make fools of themselves," is powerful because of Hall's presence.
The show hinges on the performances of Pannell and Hammond, and they really deserve extra attention. These kids have had few chances to really act before (Pannell hasn't been in much and Hammond has played a little kid in lots of big features but little in the way of real characters) but they show themselves to be fully capable of holding the screen on their own. Together they easily portray longtime friends and have an easy, comfortable relationship. They're two young actors to watch out for.
Overall, the film is far better than I expected. I suspect a lot of this credit goes to director Ernest Dickerson, who's returning to the street-opera of his directorial debut Juice and all the great films he lensed as Spike Lee's cinematographer. His hand here is subtle, only breaking out the bag of directorial tricks when it's appropriate (scenes showing the boys interviewing subjects are in gritty journalistic black-and-white, the killing from the beginning looks like a vivid nightmare) and most of the time he just sits back and lets his young leads tell the story. Our America, which is based on a book by the real kids and Isay, is an honest and sometimes tough portrait of how hard it is to be a kid under such adverse conditions.
The OAR full-frame video looks pretty good. The picture is crisp and clean and colors are vibrant when they need to be. Dickerson uses a few different film styles and each is rendered the way it should be. One sequence (which repeats throughout) that stands out is the twisted killing from the beginning. The combination of bold colors and razor-sharp imagery makes it look practically 3D. It jumps off the screen, really leaving the viewer feeling the queasy emotion the filmmakers probably intended.
The Dolby Digital stereo sound is ok, if a little underwhelming. It's nothing special, although the voices are clear.
A surprisingly effective film, Dickerson and his fine actors find a way to both be truthful and raw while also staying hopeful and uplifting. Definitely worth watching, especially for teens who may identify with the characters.