"The DROP Squad" is tough as nails. It looks fiercely at a phenomenon some would not even consider an issue, declares it a problem, even a tragedy, and offers up a solution that is clearly criminal and verges on the fascist. It's anti-democratic, ugly and, darn it, brilliantly provocative.
The issue is assimilation, and the movie can't make up its mind whether it's a threat or a menace. The setting is the black community, and the movie focuses on a young African-American advertising executive who seems to have forgotten where he came from and, even worse, is actively assisting in the exploitation of his people. Targeted for redemption, Bruford Jamison (Eriq LaSalle) is kidnapped by a self-proclaimed ethnic purity unit -- the Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride Squad -- and politically and culturally re-educated, often at the end of a fist or other blunt instrument.
I understand that the film is meant to play as satire, as acidic inflation; but that impulse is somewhat erratically deployed. For example, the re-education process itself, and the white world from which it rescues blacks who've strayed from the path, are satirically depicted. But Bruford's life and the family that he has abandoned are evoked with such sure delicacy and poignancy that no sense of satire can be felt.
At that point -- the most moving one -- "The DROP Squad" calls up a life and makes us feel its complexities and pains with almost unbearable intimacy.
The film would be much easier to dismiss if it weren't so infernally good, and if the issues it dramatizes weren't so utterly confounding. It makes the point that surely the heaviest burden African-Americans bear is the fact that they must feel they "represent" their people in a way no white person ever would or could. No black, the film implies, is free just to be a man; one has to be a black man, representative of all black men. What psychic tonnage to lug around in the world!
As it turns out, Bruford, played by the brilliantly intense LaSalle (of the hit TV show "ER") doesn't want to carry anything around. He has overcome, and some day is now. He just wants what's his, what he's worked for and what he has the talent to get. Thus, he's walked away from friends and the down-home family (which now embarrasses him) and indentured himself to an advertising agency. There he toils in the "minority development department," coming up with campaigns for the black community.
Of course, the products are all cynical and harmful, from malt liquor to cholesterol-laden fried chicken. Bruford has his doubts, but he's made his decision. Unlike some others in his department, who fuss over the compromises required of them, he stays steady to the course. This infuriates his sister, Leonora (Nicole Powell), who ultimately turns him in to the DROP Squad.
Some things irritate immensely. The portrayal of whites is as offensive to whites as the portrayal of blacks has historically been to blacks. But this error does more than offend: It basically cripples the movie dramatically. Because the white advertising agency goons are such preening, insensitive racist caricatures, nothing seems to be at stake.
But in cosmopolitan culture, where the N-word hasn't been spoken aloud in two decades, that's no longer the face of racism. How much more penetrating and provocative the film would have been if, instead of Klan buffoons, the whites were insidious hipsters who gave themselves endless smug credit for "getting it" when, of course, they don't and can't.
The film also wastes too much time on the internecine struggle between two of the DROPsters -- founder Garvey (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and No. 1 man Rocky (Ving Rhames) over the direction and the meaning of the Squad. Again, this is almost too realistic. It portrays the squad in the same light that le Carre portrays the British Secret Intelligence Service, as an old and wary club, freighted with rue and ironic regret, very close to being worn out but still somehow (with secret romanticism) carrying on. Interesting, yes, but it gets in the way of the issue thrust of the film.
The film's best sequence comes when Bru turns hard to crack, and so Rocky and a cohort make a metaphorical journey to his roots, trying to find out what makes him so tough. The trip evokes a whole African-American rural culture spread throughout the small towns of the South, and the complex skein of kinship relationships and traditions -- all of it immaculately dramatized, so much so I wish the film had just been about the investigation. It was going somewhere few movies have gone before.
"The DROP Squad" asks more questions than it has answers for, but the questions it asks are the hardest of all.
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"The DROP Squad"
Starring Eriq LaSalle and Vondie Curtis-Hall
Directed by David Johnson
Released by Gramercy