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Faced with the prospect of yet another cold, unheated classroom, high school history teacher Ken Knowles (Judd Nelson) takes his class to a warm burger joint to finish the lesson. His subsequent suspension over the incident precipitates a wild student protest, and in the melee, six of them - Lester (Usher Raymond), Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), Ziggy (Robert Ri'chard), Rodney (Fredo Starr), Lynn (Sara Gilbert) and Rivers (Clifton Collins Jr.) - wind up barricading themselves inside the school with a belligerent security guard (Forest Whitaker) as their inadvertent hostage. With conditions at the school growing worse with each passing month, this was the spark the pressure-cooker atmosphere was waiting for. But as Lester and his reluctant rebels soon discover, there's no such thing as a non-violent siege.

"The emblematic image for Light It Up is a flame brought to life against a dark background: we see this right at the start (in a brief pre-credits sequence where someone switches on a gas jet) and again near the end (in closeups of a flaring match). In between, light is hard to come by. Apart from occasional, brief cutaways, nearly all the action takes place in the cramped, murky confines of an inner-city high school, where table lamps and ceiling fixtures create only small pools and crevasses of illumination in the dim blue haze (which at key moments becomes entirely blurred and abstract). There's a music-video rush in the early scenes where students are being shuffled from one overcrowded classroom to another, and the walls are too thin to shut out the hubbub outside, the winter wind blowing in through a broken window, the hip-hop beats on the soundtrack. It's a generic style, somehow both urgent and cosy, just as the script brings a certain amount of conviction to a very (!) unlikely and contrived plot premise. The results are predictably mixed. Writer-director Craig Bolotin is clearly a smart guy, and he probably knows enough to aim the film at a black teenage audience and get away with it, but the dialogue often resorts to awkwardly spelling out positions and attitudes ('You think you got a monopoly on oppression? I am the white trash king!') and the glancing, impressionistic approach means that a lot of the ideas aren't developed. The use of the Internet as a plot device seems promising but doesn't really lead anywhere, and Sara Gilbert's role is especially underwritten. Overall this is a good exploitation movie that just misses being something more, but that makes it better than most movies around."
Jake Wilson

"The urban high school drama has been grist for the Hollywood mill ever since Glenn Ford eyeballed a knife-wielding Vic Morrow in 1955's The Blackboard Jungle. Over the years, with more and more money riding on it at the box-office, that original scenario has evolved into something substantially more exploitative. In Light It Up, writer director Craig Bolotin tries to put a more positive, semi-idealistic spin on the genre's heavily promoted stereotypes, but the result is only middling. The school in question still looks more like a run-down, drug-clearing house than a place of learning, but at least its predominantly black and Hispanic student population doesn't look like it's studying for a degree in arms dealing. All these kids want is a decent education. And that doesn't come easy when your school lacks the funds to repair the central heating or provide enough teachers and textbooks to go around. Strictly speaking, the film stops short of actually advocating student militancy; the pupils' decision to raise the drawbridge and man the barricades is not a premeditated act. Like debris in a swollen river, they suddenly have found themselves swept out of their depth and the fear and confusion that colours their subsequent actions is palpable. But while Bolotin proves adept at infusing these early scenes with kinetic pace, when he begins to delve into each characters' emotional underpinnings, the film quickly slips into a coma of bombast and melodramatic contrivance from which it never recovers. In the U.S., even with the presence of rapper Usher Raymond in a pivotal role, the film failed to click with its largely black target audience, so its prospects in this country appear to be even slimmer. Disappointing."
Leo Cameron

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CAST: Usher Raymond, Forest Whitaker, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa L. Williams, Judd nelson, Robert Ri'chard, Fredro Starr, Sara Gilbert

DIRECTOR: Craig Bolotin

PRODUCER: Tracey E. Edmonds

SCRIPT: Craig Bolotin


EDITOR: Wendy Greene Bricmont

MUSIC: Harry Gregson-Williams




AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 4, 2000 (Sydney & Melbourne only)

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