Outside, "Jason's Lyric" is brand new, an icon for a melancholy age: a drama set in urban hip-hop culture, full of misdirected rage and its attendant self-loathing, built around a capacity for violence and fueled by those oh-so-familiar tools of the trade, the 9 mm automatic and the .357 Magnum revolver.
Inside, however, "Jason's Lyric" is purely ancient: It's the same old story, classical and spare and tragic, about doomed lovers, the complexity of relationship between siblings, a lost father, and the ever-pursuing furies of fate.
In fact, more than anything, it reminded me of something of which its young writer (Bobby Smith Jr.) and director (Doug McHenry) can have no direct knowledge -- the brief, intense burgeoning of live drama on television in the late '50s, when sturdily constructed classical plays, or modern plays constructed sturdily on classical bones, were a feature of the cultural landscape.
"Jason's Lyric" has that seriousness of purpose and that same self-consciousness of form. It believes devoutly in the power of drama to do something more than simply entertain or titillate, and it has profound respect for the dramatists who've come before it. That is its best value.
Its form is ambitious. The real-time setting is a bus prowling across the Texas prairie, where Jason (Allen Payne) is recollecting the sorry set of circumstances that evidently brought him to this spot, fleeing from all he knew or loved like a survivor of the burning Troy. As he recollects, he slips back through time in a variety of modes, sometimes re-creating the past in gritty reality, sometimes in a rosy-fingered hue of sentimentality. Point-of-view pedants may object or at least note that the flashback device is imperfectly deployed -- he remembers things that happened when he wasn't there or he remembers other people's memories -- but others disinclined to such formal precision probably won't notice.
The remembered setting is Houston, Texas, in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood. Jason's memories follow himself and his brother, two sons of a doomed father, and document how each young man deals with that curse. Maddog (Forest Whitaker), the father, came back from Vietnam a haunted, desperate man, full of love for his family but so distraught by the pain in his head he has become all but worthless. It's his cruel legacy of violence and abuse, yet profound love, that will dog Jason and Joshua (Bokeem Woodbine).
One is "good" and one is "bad," and someone has read Steinbeck's "East of Eden," with its echoes of Cain and Abel, which used the identical device. Jason, who works in a television repair store and hopes to get into a management training program in Dallas, exemplifies mainstream values: works hard, accepts the system, dreams the American dream. Joshua, huge and muscular, is first glimpsed leaving prison: He has a gleaming head, his eyes are shaded behind tearglass lenses and the pulsing beat of loud soundtrack rock proclaims him dangerous: he seems to stand for street culture, the hustler or stick-up man's brief, fancy life.
"Jason's Lyric" is extremely tough on these issues, pulling no punches, making no excuses, though it does trace the source of Joshua's pathology back to atrocities he witnessed when he was young and his father was his most irrational. But there's no sugarcoating of his tragic course through life and he isn't romanticized into anything unrecognizable.
Still, the movie focuses on a counterpoint to this tragedy: Jason's love affair with Lyric (Baltimore's Jada Pinkett), another "good" sibling (her brother is "bad," a gangster), and the healing power of love. As Joshua is consumed more and more by his rages, and he slides deeper into the life of a petty criminal on the way to becoming a big-time criminal (he becomes involved with Lyric's brother), Jason is courting Lyric. Director McHenry has a good feel for the tidal currents of such a relationship. Lyric turns out to have, indeed, a lyric quality: she's a romantic who quotes poetry and is as shy as a medieval virgin about her sexual identity. Jason is a little overwhelmed by her, not sure he can cut it with such an exotic young woman.
The film is already famous for its encounter with the MPAA's rating board, which demanded cuts in certain erotic passages to qualify for an R-rating, amid charges that the "establishment" is somehow uncomfortable with images of African-American intimacy. For me, such charges don't ring true. These are McHenry's least effective sequences: He photographs them in the over-lush, over-romantic, hopelessly banal visual vernacular of high-end soft-core porn. It's completely uninteresting.
Effectively, "Jason's Lyric" intercuts between its two halves: the love affair between Jason and Lyric, and the love affair between Joshua and death. There's a core of incisive melodramatic storytelling that's extremely well constructed, as Joshua gets involved in a bank robbery, a betrayal and a final, almost Pyrrhic expression of his manhood that has tragic reverberations into the life of Jason and Lyric.
The movie may actually veer, in the end, from the tragic course it seems to have selected, and some of the flashbacks within flashbacks to the father's life are overdone, but the film, on the whole, is quite convincing and gripping.
Starring Allen Payne and Jada Pinkett
Directed by Doug McHenry
Released by Gramercy