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ZEBRAHEAD

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Michael Rapaport, N’Bushe Wright, Deshonn Castle, Ron Johnson, Ray Sharkey
Director: Anthony Drazan
Audio: English Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Bonus Trailers
Length: 102 Minutes
Release Date: June 18, 2002

“Can you live with that? Black and White like THIS!?”

Film **1/2

Zebrahead is not so much a movie as notes toward a movie—a good one, judging by what's on the screen. The strength of the central story is undermined by loose ends and subplots that are hinted at but never developed, and watching the film is a little like solving a puzzle. If the director didn't have the money to finish what he started—and apparently he didn't—then he should have been more merciless in his editing, leaving out the footage that's distracting.

The movie takes place in Detroit, where a Jewish teenager named Zack (Michael Rapaport) and his best friend, a black kid named Dee (Deshonn Castle), go to school together. One day Zack sees Dee's cousin Nikki (N'Bushe Wright), likes her looks, and somewhat shyly asks her out. Neither one has dated interracially before, but they have a lot in common and before long they're going steady.

Their romance causes ripples in their families and high school circles. Nikki's mother is totally opposed to her daughter dating a white boy. Zack's father (Ray Sharkey), an unprincipled womanizer, approves of his son dating any woman. Dee is all right about his best friend dating his cousin, but there is outspoken anger from another young black man in the neighborhood, Nut (Ron Johnson), who wants to date Nikki himself.

Surrounding this story are all sorts of loose ends. There are, for example, a couple of scenes in which another neighborhood boy, who is never really explained, lights fires in his lawn. I understand from an interview with the director, Anthony Drazen, that these scenes are part of an environmental subplot about natural gas seeping to the surface. Fine, but since they're not explained, the scenes are a dead end.

The movie is also awkward in the way it handles Zack's home situation. His mother is dead, and his father (Sharkey) apparently has only one goal in life, to have sex as often as possible. There is a badly handled scene in which Zack, Nikki and the father have breakfast together, and it is implied that the father would like to sleep with his son's girlfriend. The implication is never made clear, nor is the relationship between father and son well-handled; later, Zack tells Nikki, "You know how my father is"—but the problem is, we don't.

Zack takes Nikki to a party, where, in an awkward scene, she overhears him telling his friends, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice." This enrages her, and she breaks off their relationship until Zack apologizes and wins her back again. Fine, except the original remark seems contrived—stuck in to force them into an argument—and, in context, Zack's remark is more affectionate than offensive.

Then there is the business of Nut, the angry black youth across the street, who wants to date Nikki and eventually forces a violent confrontation at a skating rink. One of the characters is shot dead, after which the high school kids hold an inconclusive discussion about the meaning of it all. Well, what is the meaning? The movie seems to be saying, simultaneously, that people should be free to love who they choose, and that crossing racial lines can stir up a lot of trouble. (The real message may be, we desperately need handgun control.) 

The performances are solid. Rapaport and Wright have engaging screen presences, and it's a shame the movie didn't allow their characters to relate more deeply and at greater length, so that we could feel they were people, instead of story elements. Sharkey is interesting as the randy father, but seems to belong in another movie. And the violence at the end sends a nihilistic message: Don't bother to dream your dreams, to love, to be a friend—because the rotten world will just shoot you dead anyway.

Video **1/2

A just about good enough video job from CTS, whose picture quality on this disc is borderline good, but falls short in a few noticeable areas. For the most part, the image turnout is pretty decent, but the disc encounters some instances of softness and compression, both of which are somewhat very noticeable. An overall mixed reaction.

Audio **1/2

An all in all decent audio job, given that the only provided track is a 2.0 channel. The strong points in this presentation come from the sound of the movie’s hip-hop driven soundtrack, which occupies a good portion of the film. Dialogue is also heard with distinct clearness, but otherwise, this is mostly a standard front range quality, meaning everything mostly comes from the front area and nowhere else.

Features *

Just two bonus trailers for the CTS releases Higher Learning and Boyz N the Hood.

Summary:

Zebrahead is a noteworthy effort, with a challenging subject matter under its belt, and the performances are very good, but it simply suffers from unnecessary subplots that belong elsewhere.