Light It Up

Directed by Craig Bolotin
Starring: Usher Raymond, Forest Whitaker, Vanessa L. Williams, Judd Nelson, Sara Gilbert.
MPAA Rating: R for language and violent content.

Review by Matt Heffernan
November 12, 1999

Teen movies are becoming very popular again, seeing a boom similar to the John Hughes-driven mid-80's era. About half of the time, the kids are being killed off by the Gorton's Fisherman, or somebody. The rest of the time, they're busy preparing for the prom. From these films, one would get the impression that today's teenagers either dance or die. I was relieved to see that Light It Up was about neither of these subjects, although it doesn't stand above other teen films on any artistic level.

In Queens, NY, Lincoln High School is short on funds, and can afford neither books nor chairs for it's large student body. Worse yet, it's winter, and many of the windows in the classrooms are broken, making it impossible to hold class there. When it gets too cold in Mr. Knowles' (Judd Nelson) history class, he takes his students on a search for another room. With every available warm space taken, and the principal (Glynn Turman) won't let them stand around in the hall, he takes them all to McDonalds. During their discussion, the restaurant is held up by a man with a shotgun. When they return to school, the principal suspends Mr. Knowles for taking them off-campus, even though all the students were fine, and they had no other place to go.

Lester (Usher Raymond), Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), and several other students have Mr. Knowles for their next period, so they confront the principal about their teacher's sudden departure. He threatens to suspend them as well, even Ziggy (Robert Ri'chard), who lives at the school to stay away from his abusive father. The principal has the on-campus cop, Officer Jackson (Forest Whitaker), force Ziggy out of the building, but they get into a confrontation. Ziggy grabs Jackson's gun, and when the cop tries to wrest it out of his hand, he is shot in the knee. They accuse each other of doing it (when they actually both had their hands on the gun), and in the confusion, Lester takes the gun, and holds Jackson hostage. Then there is the usual showdown, with Lester and a motley crew of students making demands for their school, and the NYPD trying to talk them out of releasing Jackson, under the guidance of negotiator Audrey McDonald (Vanessa L. Williams).

At this point, the film becomes a very typical hostage negotiation movie. It tries to go for an MTV style, that is supposed to appeal to kids. It really just ends up disjointed, and the flair of films like Dog Day Afternoon is absent here. The scenes leading up to the hostage-taking are pretty good, but whatever originality it started with is soon lost to standard conventions. At the end, suspense is traded for a predictable and sentimental conclusion.

Not that it should matter to Raymond's fans, many of whom know him as "Usher" the rapper and R&B singer. He has already made a prom movie (She's All That) and a teen horror flick (The Faculty), so his screen requirements have been met. This is his first starring role, and he does a good enough job, even if he is too "cute" to be believable. Another problem with credibility is casting Sara Gilbert as a high school student, whom we all remember graduating on "Roseanne" several years ago. Ri'chard makes a good debut, and is the narrator of the film. He shows potential for working outside of the teen genres.

Yet again, my hopes for a decent teen movie are dashed. American Beauty nearly fit the bill, but the primary focus was on the adults. I guess that part of a great film is all I can ask for.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Light It Up (1999)

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Light It Up (1999) -- VHS
Light It Up (1999) -- DVD
Light It Up: Soundtrack (explicit lyrics) -- Compact Disc
Light It Up: Soundtrack (edited) -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan