Tuesday, April 26, 2011

187 (DVD) 1997 / a film by Kevin Reynolds; screenplay by Scott Yagemann; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Clifton Collins Jr., John Heard and Kelly Rowan

"Like you, I used to think the world was this great place where everybody lived by the same standards I did, then some kid with a nail showed me I was living in his world, a world where chaos rules not order, a world where righteousness is not rewarded. That's Cesar's world, and if you're not willing to play by his rules, then you're gonna have to pay the price."

High school science Trevor Garfield is one of a special breed of people with a sincere desire to teach. His is not just a passion to instruct his pupils on the wonders of the scientific world, but a deep need to influence the young lives he comes into contact with, especially the lives of those who are on the cusp of making potentially life-altering choices. It's not an easy job. At the Brooklyn school where he teaches, he struggles to maintain order in his always disruptive classes and walk the line between instructor and disciplinarian. When he's forced to give a failing grade to a student, a known criminal named Dennis Broadway, Garfield unwittingly unleashes a premeditated murder hit, a 187, on his own life. Attacked only hours later by a hooded assailant in the hallway, he's severely injured, almost dying prior to emergency rescue. Trevor is placed on stress leave to recuperate from the accident and, during the interval, relocates from New York to Southern California where he eventually offers his services to the public school system as a substitute teacher. He needs the paycheck and, well, he is a teacher. 

The new school he gets a chance at is little different from his former one. A woefully disorganized institution badly in need of repair, it's a place where the principals are defacto politicians who've never taught and the classrooms are hot, crowded cesspools of juvenile delinquents. The true students, the ones who have a chance are overshadowed by rambunctious riff raff, many of them active gang members, who willfully destroy school property and habitually threaten teachers with violence (like the one Garfield is replacing). It's not long before Garfield himself is threatened by a kid named Benito "Benny" Chacon, a graffito-tagger already under house arrest (an ankle bracelet on his left leg) who seems to enjoy terrifying his teachers and getting away with it--a pending lawsuit involving the school district has prevented his removal from the classroom. Other troublemakers, like Cesar, a less menacing version of the Benny, take center stage when Benny is notably absent from school. Cesar is actually someone Trevor thinks can be helped, seeing the kid as one of those caught-in-the-middle types. But what he finds is just the opposite. Some people, it seems, just don't want help.

187 was released to mediocre reviews, the critics hailing it as an unrealistic portrayal of urban high school life. Somehow this notion carried weight even with the screenplay written by a former teacher, Yagemann, who not only experienced documented cases of being threatened by students but worked under the supervision of a principal who'd never once taught in a classroom. Much of the drama is indeed laid on thick at times and the harsh thematic material involving the often unwinnable world of public education can be difficult to take in. There's also some awkward scenarios within the last third of the film which beg the question of plausibility. But aside from imperfections, there's an authenticity to the movie, its characters especially, which make parts of it undeniably brilliant. Jackson as Trevor and Clifton Collins Jr. in particular as the almost-too-believable Cesar (Collins Jr. then billed as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), both of them converging into the same type of insanity as the film nears its conclusion, create a foreboding picture of not only the microcosm of formative education but of a world which rewards compassion and courage with contempt and corruption. It's a system which leads more than a few, many of them very strong-minded individuals, down the path of fear and frustration to a dead-end scenario of despair and contempt. (DVD ONE)

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