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Film review: Light It Up

Published: Friday, Nov. 12 1999 4:18 p.m. MST

In the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy and several incidents of racial violence, the last thing we need is a movie like "Light It Up."

This urban drama, which was produced by musician Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds," isn't a terrible movie per se. But it is a misguided one that may send the wrong message about school violence.

Also, in its rush to impart an "important" message, the filmmakers forget how to tell a good story. The end result is a sluggish, superficial mess that hardly does justice to its characters or some fairly important issues.

However, credit a talented cast for trying to make the best of a bad situation. One of the standouts is musician-turned-actor Usher Raymond, who stars as Lester Dewitt, a student at a rundown Queens high school.

Over the course of a day, Lester finds himself sucked into an explosive situation, along with five other students — brainy beauty Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), sensitive artist Ziggy (Robert Ri'chard), wheeler-dealer Rivers (Clifton Collins Jr.), pregnant teen Lynn (Sarah Gilbert) and gang member Rodney (Fredro Starr).

Due to a misunderstanding and a resulting scuffle with the new school security guard (Forest Whitaker), the teens wind up taking the man hostage and clear out the school. Then, reality sinks in — as the students are suddenly stuck in a no-win situation.

Enter hostage negotiator Audrey McDonald (Vanessa L. Williams), who attempts to defuse the situation and gets everyone out of the school without bloodshed.

There are moments when the film borders on being profound, such as the attempts to show how underfunded inner-city schools are. But then director/screenwriter Craig Bolotin drags it back down to earth with a bad romantic subplot and heavy-handed posturing.

As a result, the movie feels like an urbanized "Breakfast Club" — but one with even more stereotypical character development. (Particularly awful is a scene in which the characters explain their back stories to each other.)

And that's a pity, considering the cast. Raymond makes a sympathetic lead, though it's Ri'chard, as the real outcast of the bunch, whose character emerges as the film's real emotional center.

"Light It Up" is rated R for considerable profanity, gunplay and a pair of violent scuffles, use of racial epithets and crude sexual slang terms, and simulated drug use (marijuana).