Street Wars (1992): Jamaa Fanaka’s Crime Gangster, with a Twist

AFI/L.A. Film Fest 1992–Jamaa Fanaka’s sixth indie, Street Wars, is a provocative crime-gangster pic with a twist, a genre pic that at the same time provides commentary on it.

 

In the wake of the recent civil riots, picture’s timely concerns, original structure, and bold visual conception should make it popular among young black audiences.  However, lack of traditional plot, narrative center, and moral weight might restrict its cross-over appeal.

 

The film’s tone and message are set in the pre-credits sequence, in which L.A. drug lord Frank (Bryan O’Dell) instructs his younger sibling Sugarpop (Alan Joseph Howe), the best aviation cadet (“top gun”) of the elitist Exeter Military Academy.  “There’s no right and wrong,” he says, “just power.”  But there is no power without money. Frank has made the money but, realizing the black community needs a righteous leader, he expects Sugarpop to get them legitimacy and respect.

 

The first half of the film is rather routine.  Frank’s private army, Knights of the Round Table, attack one crack house after another.  When Frank is viciously killed in the toilet of a French restaurant, Sweetpop avenges his death and takes charge of the operation, vowing to make it legit in two years.  The narrative is punctuated by flashback to the pre-credit boat scene and message.

 

Trained in ultra-light aircraft, Sweetpop flies a recreational airplane.   Violence is excessive and, in at least one scene, gratuitous.  Cold-blood shootings in cold blood.  Like Juice and other pics of genre, Steeet Wars is caught.  Because violence erupts randomly and suddenly, with no context, its effects register no meaning.  It is shot in slow-motion.

 

Yet self-conscious indie offers satirical view of its charcaters.  Entertaining pic is peopled by vividly drawn and oddball characters.  Sugarpop’s right-hand is the massive Humungus, and Christie, an active gang member, is an homosexual who describes himself as “woman by desire, man by nature.”   It’s a lifestyle pic with a tight look on just one segment of the black community, the drugdealer, their expensive cars and limousines, haute couture, beautiful women, French restaurants

 

No element, black or white, remains unscathed.  The police chief, a carcicature who describes the gangtsrm as a bunch of animals and lowlifes, proves inefficient in controlling the violence.  TV news people use cliches and embellish and sensationalize the stories to attract viewers and increase ratings.  The resdients are depicted as selfish, pasive and indifferent.  A black woman doesn’t care about crack so long as it is not next door to her; she is more concerned with what channel would air her interview.

Visuals in these, as well as rest of pic, are strong, using bold colors in describing the drug-dealing process: the dealers, lookouts, addicts. There is health humor at excessive glamorous lifestyle of black.  Pic’s central sex scene is hilarious.

Unlike Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, in which the very fabric and value system of white mainstream society is challenged, Fanaka accepts dominant culture–he just wants an active share of it.  Pic’s message, that the only way to assume power and respect is through monetary terms might be controversial. And some may view this militant African-American pic’s suggestion, that the end justifies the means, as controversial.   Sugarpop plans to go legit in two years, but he has no qualms about maximizing his profits while using illegitimate means.  Pic goes one step beyond Spike Lee and John Singleton, who chronicled the frustration and anger faced by young black men in the ghettos.  In Fanaka’s pragmatic feature, rage is channeled into action.  The young men are not morally confused; they’re articulate and know exactly what needs to be done, as one of them states:: “American cash, don’t leave home without it.”

The movie is stylized and absolutely unsentimental and nonjudgmental.  There is a good musical number right after Frank’s grand funeral.  Clearly, it is not a narrative in which auds are asked to sympathize with the characters.  Defying easy categorization, modernist pic switches gears rapidly, from a family melodrama to sex farce to crime-gangster action.

A black minister explains that evil is a learned behavior, a product of conditioning–it’s the devil that made Frank and his cronies gangsters.

He who controls the skies controls the streets.  He teaches them how to fly.  Aerial sequences of recreational airplanes.  Soon, they are known as the ghetto air force. Aerial mobsters are genius in public relations

Endowed with stunning looks and great screen presence, Alan shows potential for star but gives a weak performance.  Some of tech credits (editing, soundtrack) are not polished, a possible result of the fact that pic came out of the laboratory just day prior to its showing at fest.   It lacks the visual flair and dazzling action of New Jake City the emotional resonance of Boyz N the Hood, and the heartfelt grit of Straight Out of Brooklyn.  But offbeat, visually witty film is achievement of Fanaka’s vision in his triple capacities as helmer-scripter-co-producer.

 

Credits

A Jamaa Fanaaka Production.

Produced by Jamaa Fanaka, Bryan O’dell, Ben Caldwell, Ayanna DuLaney.

Directed, written by Fanaka.

Camera (color): John Demps.

Editors: Alain Jacubowicz, Taesung Yim.

 

Running time: 94 Minutes.

 

Cast

 

Sugarpop…..Alan Joseph Howe

Frank……….. Bryan O’Dell

Humungus…….  Cliff Shegog