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Light it up

Threat advisory: Severe - Severe risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

They don't want to be heroes. They just want to be heard.

A neglected high school in Queens, New York USA. A favourite teacher is suspended. Suddenly, six disparate students - a student council member (Rosario Dawson as Stephanie), a punk rocker (Sara Gilbert as Lynn), a hustler (Clifton Collins Junior as Rivers), a star basketball player (usher Raymond as Lester), a gang banger (Fredro Starr as Rodney) and a gifted artist (Robert Richard as Ziggy) - are bound together in a battle none of them ever imagined they would fight.

The students barricade themselves inside the school. As the police, media and eyes of the country zero in on the sensational crisis, the students realise for the first time in their young lives that their voices might actually be heard. The question then becomes, what do they have to say?

What quickly escalated from a simple protest to a hostage situation takes a startling turn as the students stand their ground and make a statement. After a lifetime of injustice over which they've had no control, the students use their negotiating power to ask not for money, nor to gain immunity, but to demand their right to receive a decent education. Even the police officer (Forrest Whitaker as Dante Jackson) they reluctantly take hostage is compelled to empathise with the students as he learns what brought them here and supports their need to be heard. Ultimately the officer puts his life in jeopardy to help them.

Also starring Judd Nelson as Mister Knowles, Vanessa L Williams as Audrey McDonald and Glynn Turman as Principal Armstrong. Written and directed by Craig Bolotin.

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Special Agent Matti

Theatrical report

Sister act 2 without the Prozac.

Yes, that's right, folks, there is life beyond Hollywood and Light it up takes you there. Where you expect a cast of all-singing, all-dancing nuns to change the world with some 60s girl group music there is in fact a bunch of troubled teens, lost and betrayed by the system which is supposed to save them. Don't blame violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy on the teenagers, blame it on their parents who brought them into a world where the principal's retirement fund is more important than textbooks. Blame it on a government which is more interested in trading arms to militant rebels in order to destabilise foreign governments than providing heating to schools buried by snow. Blame it on a police force so inured to violence and deception that it no longer recognises the truth... Little Johnny Howard: are you listening?


The good thing about Light it up is that it takes teenagers seriously (See also Looking for Alibrandi for an Australian take on a similar theme), not just as characters in a film but as human beings. They are not Beverley Hills 90210 blancmange babies, their troubles are those of the entire species: love, loss, hate, mistrust, despair, creation and hope. They are poor, they struggle, they strive, they fail. As Rivers says, this may be the only significant event in his entire life.

All the main actors in this flick are good. usher makes a compelling case for violence and for forgiveness. His confusion is the reason the audience must watch this film to its awesome conclusion: how will Lester use the gun? To distribute justice or to save it? Like an actual human being, Lester wavers in his convictions, is swayed by arguments from all sides, makes good decisions and bad ones, stands up for himself and cowers in fear. Rosario is stunningly beautiful, the epitome of the black movement's search for equality, Clifton is white trash seeking some way out of the swirling masses, Sara is hard-bitten and hard done by, Fredro is hard-edged and hard to control, Robert is the innocent possessing a Gift from god. Combining this volatile mix of students is the best thing that Craig could've done. Harking back to the 90210 comparison, this is not Hollywood, it is life.

While some of the themes approach cliché that is really only because you have been exposed to too much reality: angry youths, under-resourced schools and casual violence are just another part of life in Australia as much as in the USA. The weakest part of Light it up is the adult characters: they spend so little time on-screen that they pass by as ciphers rather than people. That's unfortunate but there is little that can be done without taking time away from the teenage characters. The gung-ho attitude of the police also seems extreme but is probably real (how many people have been shot by police in Australia let alone New York?)

Light it up is a hard look at a hard situation in a rock-hard drama. See it.

Security censorship classification

M (Medium level violence, medium level coarse language)

Surveillance time

99 minutes (1:39 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 5 January 2000

Cinema surveillance images

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God, n.: the supernatural being conceived as the perfect and omnipotent and omniscient originator and ruler of the universe; the object of worship in monotheistic religions.

Also: the giver of a beautiful artistic gift to an individual which is hard for other people to believe as coming from the individual so they ascribe them to the deity. This saves their egos from facing up to the fact that they are ordinary.

Also: the taker away of said gift or individual before the reaching average life span as a just compensation for having been better than others. Very comforting to the others who can smugly enjoy their continued, if mediocre, existence.

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