Studio: Allumination Filmworks
US Rating: Rated R for Language
Film Length: 90 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 1:78.1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: Optional Spanish
The Film - out of
Films that tackle race relations rarely find a wide audience. That says less about the film and more about the audiences. Whether it is the openness of an audience to face these issues on film or simply finding the right story to appeal to them isn’t clear, but either way, these films are never a safe bet. Race relations as a subject aren’t easy to dramatize for the film medium either. Too often the deeper complexities inherent in the subject are ignored or glossed over; or the film panders to the window dressing of the issue, simplifying the characters into mere monolith representations of ethnic groups or focuses too heavily on clichés and teen focused storylines which regularly fail to invite broader audiences. Films like Crash were lauded and criticized in almost equal measure which begs the question, will the deep wound and difficult subject of race relation only be approachable to people in plots and storylines that begin from more tailored perspectives or, depending on where they are emotionally, does it need to gently, ease them in? Of course, it could simply be like most other movies, that some genuinely found Crash a brave and clever piece of cinema while others found it patronizing and shallow.
Rock the Paint doesn’t ask of the audience anything new. It presents a somewhat familiar, ‘stranger in a strange land’ scenario and spends its running time examining responses from both whites and blacks when the initial boundaries are tested and ultimately changed. The story brings us a father living on a farm in the lush cornfields of Indiana with his two boys. Josh (Douglas Smith) is a teenager who plays basketball for his senior year team. Tim (Sam Stone) is his younger brother, a smart mouthed and obnoxious little boy who loves hip-hop and thinks himself a future rapper. The out of work father, Lenny (Christopher Innvar), finds a job in the unforgiving concrete of New Jersey which forces the family’s relocation. They move in with Lenny’s father and before long, Josh and Tim find that they are not welcome. Their first encounter is on the concrete court where the hoop is without a net and they are confronted by three black teens who proclaim “this is our court”. The leader of the three boys is Antwone (Kevin Phillips), a certain and talented basketball player with whom Josh would eventually become good friends. Tim’s loud mouth and taunting nature assures the three confident young teens that his older brother could beat them and should be allowed to stay if he does. They take him up on that offer and Josh is beaten and beaten badly. Bloody and embarrassed, he slinks home. This act sets up the films ‘battle lines’, as the distrust, mocking and simmering prejudice on both sides find ways to temper friendships and bring up questions within the two friends about the nature of motives and what hate may exist just beneath the surface.
Rock the Paint, written by Dallas Mitchell Brennan and directed by Phil Bertelsen, introduces a number of characters and circumstances that give rise to questions of how much prejudice and distrust exists in our society. Bi-racial relationships, distrust of a white man teaching civil rights history, prejudice against Jews and the use of the ever controversial ‘N’ word are all put forth. Many of these elements are presented but are never explored deeply enough to distract from or augment the main plotline of two boys who struggle with the pressures of peers and prejudice around and within them.
The film works best when situations are at their most strained, awkward and difficult. For example, when Josh and Antwone try and talk some sense into young Tim, who has become a delinquent and ruder than ever, he calls Antwone the ‘N’ word. Tim is too simple and ignorant to understand what he has done, but the effects of his offensive utterance ripple between Josh and Antwone. The power of that word and the significance of its deep rooted and repugnant beginnings are never more deeply felt. When the word is used by a white person again, in perhaps the most powerful moment in the film, its ripples are more pronounced and damaging and the weight of it lingers much longer. Rock the Paint is smart to simply raise the questions in an environment where they can be discussed, not clinically or from emotional speeches, but in more natural ways and realistic settings. They are explored by the characters clumsily and in small steps, rather than in ways that are eloquent for effect and structured purely for drama. The script gives breathing room for more realistic conversations, though it does trip up from time to time.
There are no easy answers here and there were certainly opportunities to expand upon the characters a little more and get into what has helped inform their perspectives, right or wrong. In that respect, Rock the Paint lacks context and depth. Where it succeeds, however, and why it is a triumph, is that it recognizes how the dialogue it can generate is what is important, and not spending time giving the world the writer and director’s ideas for solutions. It also uses basketball as an open door to invite audiences in, but does not rely upon it for entertainment. The play is not expressive but nor should it be, it simply provides a conceivable environment for these characters to interact in this way within the difficult New Jersey landscape.
Rock the Paint is the recipient of a number of recognitions. After receiving support from the outstanding Tribeca Film Festival, it was the winner of the ‘Best Picture Award’ at the Montclair Film Festival, the ‘Creative Promise Award’ from the Tribeca Film Festival, an official selection at the Pan African Film Festival and most recently the ‘Homegrown Feature Award’ at the Garden State Film Festival. The film’s humble beginnings, small budget and independent feel are all strengths that give the picture authenticity and opportunity to find audiences one festival at a time. Now, on DVD, everyone can appreciate the effort put forth here and I recommend that you do so.
One final note, the film features exceptional original music from The Fugees founding member Wyclef Jean. The soundtrack pulses with superb hip-hop tracks and expresses emotional struggle and difficult circumstances very well with a strong score.
Presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.78:1, Rock the Paint manages a pretty good image. Filmed with Panasonic DVC Pro Cameras, the opening setting of Indiana is bright, crisp and warm. When the story moves to New Jersey, the colder setting loses some of that crispness, but holds up well. The film also relies heavily on a more natural lighting feel which serves the story and helps create a distinct character for New Jersey.
Unfortunately, the sound quality really lets this release by the new Allumination Filmwork’s independent distributors down. The major complaint is the lack of consistency in the sound as well as the imbalance in sound levels. It is clear that the sound lacks uniformity due to the editing of different takes together without work on sound design or ADR work. This means crowd noise during basketball play varies and ambient sounds don’t match between shots. More disconcerting is the imbalance in volume for the soundtrack. Up, down and up again in ways that don’t match the story’s intent is harder to explain. In addition, the audio is too front focused with little use of the surrounds made. Wyclef Jean’s pulsating music finds times to rumble but not as much as it should.
Producer & Cast Member Audio Commentary – At times unfocused and with voices overlapping, the commentary is quite lively and in genuine adoration of the film. Some moments do not seem in line with the message of the film; a little careless, but overall it is somewhat entertaining.
Deleted Scenes - (18:25) – 8 deleted scenes are presented here that really don’t add too much. Most of the deleted scenes running time comes from footage already in the film, these simply add a little here and there to each of them.
Behind The Scenes - (14:08) – A home made behind the scenes featurette with interviews with the writer Dallas Mitchell Brennan and director Phil Bertelsen discussing the origins of the project and how the Tribeca film festival really helped launch the project.
Rock The Paint Rocks – A look at the premieres of the film at the various film festivals, broken into segments by festival
The Tribeca Film Festival - (2:11)
The Montclair International Film Festival - (2:33)
The Garden State Film Festival - (3:25)
Newark - (2:47)
2 Rock The Paint Trailers
Previews – Previews for Moola, Lost Colony, Loaded, Border Lost and Grizzly Park.
There are times during Rock the Paint where the story moves without keeping all the important elements clear. It uses montages to move the story forward quicker than the running time would have allowed without and isn’t always effective. But some shaky inexperience in fictional narrative aside, the questions raised in the confines of the story provide for a worthy and at times brave little film. While it slips into the familiar margins of some characterization, it also manages to create new space for others without pandering, oversimplifying or shying away from the outcomes of flaring tensions. Rock the Paint is worth checking out.