Rich became the darling of the 1990 Sundance festival, and the youngest director to have a movie in competition. Though technically raw, Straight Out of Brooklyn generated excitement for its fresh voice, offering an unsparing look at the disintegration of one black family. Set in the Red Hook housing projects, it depicts kids growing up in a neighborhood infested with drugs and shootouts who can't escape the vicious cycle of violence.
To lift himself out of misery, Dennis (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), an adolescent sick of impoverishment, plans with two homeboys, Kevin (Mark Malone) and Larry (played by Rich), to rob a local drug dealer and use the money to escape. Dennis and his girlfriend Shirley ponder their life against the glorious skyline of Manhattan. “They built New York by steppin' on the black man, steppin' on the black family!” says Dennis, expressing the director's grim credo.
Attempting a short-cut to fulfill his yearnings, Dennis provokes his family's ruin. The family in the film stands as a microcosm for a ghetto society, in which frustrated men take out their anger on their dearest ones. Like Boyz 'N the Hood, Straight Out of Brooklyn focuses on the efforts of one teenager to find a way out. But unlike Jungle Fever, in which explosive racism and drug abuse serve as subtexts, in Rich's movie, they are the text.
Straight out of Rich's life, the characters are based on his family. Dennis is modeled on a childhood friend, Lamont Logan, who was arrested for stealing a motorcycle and later died of kidney disease in a juvenile detention center. Rich's abuse by his own father inspired the opening scene. In a drunken rage, Ray beats his long-suffering wife, while in an adjacent bedroom their terrified children lie in bed listening to the argument. When Rich was 8, he was in bed listening to “things crashing” in the next room, as his father took out his frustration on his mother. “All I could hear,” Rich recalled, “was knocking on the door and people shouting to open up. The police came in and took my father–and that was the last time I ever saw him.”
The couple in the movie, the spiritually broken father and the forgiving mother, are modeled on Rich's aunt and uncle. His uncle was killed at a Red Hook bus stop on his way to the hospital to visit his cancer-ridden wife. It was a “double whammy”: his uncle died in the ambulance, and his aunt in the hospital shortly thereafter. The climactic sequence shows the simultaneous deaths–in a hospital and on the streets–of Dennis' parents, events edited together in a quick calibrated rhythm to suggest the hand of fate.
In Rich's vision, the essentials of the African-American experience boil down to poverty and death. A blend of polemics and art, Straight Out of Brooklyn is dominated by the former.
Like John Singleton, Rich knows first-hand the inner-city, and like the former, he enjoyed family support that helped remove him from a life of hopeless despair.
But the movie is amateurish, suffering from lack of technique, with out-of-focus compositions, cluttered blocking with the actors' backs to the camera, and a restaurant scene in which the sounds of eating garble the dialogue. What was presented as rough-hewn and natural and had certain charm, derived from Rich's lack of skill.