Zebrahead (1992): Oliver Stone Presents Timely, Socially Relevant Indie Movies

In addition to being an accomplished filmmaker and winner of multiple Oscar Awards for his writing (“Midnight Express”) and direction (“Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July”), Oliver Stone has been instrumental in supporting young, fresh voices of the nascent American independent cinema.

At present, “Oliver Stone Presents” features prominently in the ad campaigns of two socially relevant films: South Central and Zebrahead.

Both movies provide a gritty, honest and direct look at growing up in the inner city. And both deal with gangs, poverty, police brutality, riots and above all the role of the family in socializing its children into a rift-torn and complex world. However, unlike South Central, which has a rather simple and naive narrative, focusing on the relationship between father and son, Zebrahead’s preachiness is not as blatant; it is also a much better and subtler film.

At the center of the story are two classmates who are friends: Zach (Michael Rapaport), who is Jewish, and Dee (DeShonn Castle), a black teenager. Growing up on the fringes of Detroit, the two boys share dreams of becoming famous rap artists. Their peers don’t much object to their friendship until Zach starts dating Nikki (N’Bushe Wright), Dee’s beautiful cousin. Their love affair presents a major threat to the community–personally and collectively. Zach’s rival, Nut McCrea (Ron Johnson), sees it as an unforgivable violation–a white man taking away “something” that belongs to him.

Oliver Stone has described Anthony Drazan, the writer-director of Zebrahead, as “a new breed of politically responsible filmmakers, an adventurer who is not afraid to cross the boundaries of racial difference in order to expose our similarities.”

“Zebrahead” takes the viewer to the two places where bigotry are both nurtured and perpetuated–the home and the racially diverse classroom. Both Zach and Nikki belong to one-parent families; Zach lives with his womanizer macho father (Ray Sharkey) and Nikki with her mother (Candy Ann Brown). It is a measure of the film’s subtlety that the two youngsters are at once more mature and open-minded than their parents.

A native New Yorker, Drazan worked for Joseph Papp at the Public Theater before graduating from the prestigious NYU Film School. His personal film, which is semi-autobiographical, started as a powerful memory about racial hatred. Aiming to gain firsthand information, Drazan took a 8mm video camera into NY high schools, where he taped 60 hours of conversations between students, their friends, parents, and teachers.

Set in Detroit, Zebrahead captures in great detail the everyday life of adolescents, which involves “trippin,” dancing, courting, and interaction with “flippin” teachers. The authentic story, told from the teenagers’ point of view, uses the very language teenagers speak and understand. If you want to get an idea of how realistic and gritty Zebrahead is, all you have to do is contrast it with Blackboard Jungle or any other teenage inner-city melodrama of the l950s.

Drazan’s script was initially developed at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Institute. The film won the top award of the 1992 Sundance Film Festival in a year of tough competition from other independent movies.

Commitment and idealism have marked the production of Zebrahead from beginning to end. After the press screening, Michael Rapaport, who gives a truly naturalistic and heartbreaking performance, told me that he cared about the script so much that he paid for his own trip to New York to audition for the lead part.

While both South Central and Zebrahead are hopeful, Drazan’s movie possesses a greater appeal and might have a more direct impact, because it suggests those teenagers–and the young generation–actually have the power to change the malignant legacy of bigotry, discrimination, and racism.

Opening on the same day as Zebrahead is Reservoir Dogs, the film that has created the greatest buzz at the film festivals this year, though it left without winning any kudos.  As directed by Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is a most impressive film debut–ultra-violent, but also more original, poignant, and flamboyant.

Commercial Appeal

Released by Triumph, on October 23, 1992, Zebrahead grossed the modest amount of $1.55 million at the domestic box-office.