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Education of Sonny Carson, The

VCI // R // October 22, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted October 25, 2002 | E-mail the Author

NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with The Education of Sonny Carson director Michael Campus

A lot of message films pander to their audiences with easy lessons and simple uplifting morals. By contrast, Michael Campus' The Education of Sonny Carson (1974) is a tough, dark story that doesn't much play easy with the more troubling aspects of its subject. Based on the memoirs of Sonny Carson, a controversial civil rights activist, the film depicts the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy (also the setting of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing) and Brownsville during extremely trying times. At the start of the film the young Carson is shown receiving an award for good citizenship and scholarship. Soon after, however, he's thrown in juvenile detention for attempting to rob a store. The duality between these two scenes informs Carson's entire life, with his gang involvement setting the stage for a life of tragedy. Ultimately, The Education shows Carson (played for most of the film by the excellent Rony Clanton) learning some lessons and moving on. The journey, however, is a tough one.

From the start, the desperation in Carson's life is evident. The grocery store robbery consists of little more than handfuls of change. And his early incarceration is shot in a darkly foreboding way, emphasizing the loneliness of his life. When he gets released from juvenile detention, Carson immediately joins up with the Lords, a Brooklyn gang. His initiation, a run through "the old mill," consists of a severe pipe-and-chain beating by other gang members. This sort of self-abuse points out how much tougher these gangs were than the cowards of today, whose initiation may involve murdering an innocent bystander rather than absorbing the hurt personally. While it's painful to watch, it's easy to see how this ritual would help these lost youths feel a stronger bond; It may hurt, but they've all felt it.

Carson's time with the Lords is depicted in a number of memorable scenes, including a couple of rumbles with the rival Hawks. For their first encounter, Campus shows the preparations and the gang members rushing towards one another, intercut with a rousing street gospel performance, and then abruptly cuts to the aftermath. This bold move may have been created by circumstance (on the commentary track Campus explains that he heard rumor that the two gangs were really going to fight, so he cut the scene) but the effect is astonishing. It emphasizes the reasons for the violence and the consequences without luridly reveling in the violence itself. The second battle, a huge rumble in Prospect Park does play out on screen, but to much more tragic ends.

Campus stages a number of scenes that stick with the viewer. Both gangs take part in a huge parade that plays with as much joy as the participants must have felt. Sonny picks up sweet Virginia (Joyce Walker) on a comically over-crowded subway train, a scene that's funny, touching and achingly real all at once. And in one extended sequence, key to the film's sad emotional undercurrent, Carson and his best Lords friends smoke weed and dream about their ideal jobs (the captain of the Queen Mary being one of the more creative ones). The film takes an even darker turn when one of Sonny's friends is killed, leading to a powerful funeral scene with a seemingly possessed preacher (the amazing Ram John Holder) repeatedly asking who killed the young man while clearly pointing the finger at everyone there.

There is also a complex relationship depicted between Carson and his father Pops (the outstanding Richard Benjamin) in a just a few short scenes. Like the rest of the film this dynamic is honest and points to the conflicted feelings of people in turmoil. Pops slaps Sonny hard across the face in one early flashback but as the film progresses it becomes clear from his sporadic appearances that he places much of the blame for Sonny's path on his own shoulders. By the time Pops visits Sonny in prison (one of the most powerful scenes ever based on a prison visit) he is nearly paralyzed with guilt and self-loathing.

This sort of complex moral view runs throughout the film with Sonny straying from the righteous path (he robs a delivery boy) while still learning hard lessons about life. He endures an extremely brutal beating at the hands of a couple of cops and later meets with some sad disappointments after a stint in Sing Sing prison. The constant barrage of urban decay could be repetitious in less capable directorial hands but Campus balances the darkness perfectly. Ultimately, the film tells a story that could belong to anyone living under such dire circumstances. Since the film doesn't explore the following years (when Carson became an outspoken critic of white society, loved and hated equally) it is free to concentrate on what its title emphasizes: education. The streets are Carson's classroom and that he was able to survive at all was the lesson.

The film is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image itself, however, is less than perfect. The contrast is a tad low and the elements show some occasional damage. There is also some compression evident. Still, this transfer is acceptable considering the age of the elements and the low-budget nature of the film. It was originally released by Paramount but the current DVD release is by VCI Entertainment. What happened to the negative in the quarter century between is anybody's guess, however. The distributor wasn't able to find an actual film negative and the transfer was cobbled together from various sources including video. Considering all that it looks remarkably good.

The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is fine. A bit noisy at times and lacking in range, it is usually clear and understandable. Again, considering the age of the film the audio is acceptable.

NOTE: Early pressings apparently had an audio error which caused a strange echo effect on the voices for several scenes including the first Lords / Hawks rumble. The error was corrected before the disc came out but in the event that you have this problem (It's very blatant) you should return it for a new copy.

A fine commentary track from director Michael Campus and Sonny Carson himself is included. This is really the most important feature that could have been included and it is filled with fascinating material on Carson's life and on the film. It's incredible how many characters and actors from the film Carson says are now dead.

The disc also includes audio bios for Campus and Carson as well as a photo gallery of stills from the film as well as one taken, not from the film, but from Carson's own life.

An extraordinarily honest and direct film, The Education of Sonny Carlson is one of the most vital stories ever told about the inner city. From the tough Brooklyn streets to any ghetto in the world, the struggles here are universal. What Carson and Campus did was distill the essence of this battle for the soul down to the most basic elements: Sadness, disappointment, longing and fear.

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]

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