In one of the most moving scenes in South Central, Bobby Johnson (Glenn Plummer), a young black man who has just served a 10-year prison sentence for murder, visits the detention center where his delinquent son is being housed — the son who was only a baby when Bobby was convicted. Savvy and button-cute, his dark eyes sparkling with intelligence, Jimmie (Christian Coleman) appears to have grown up nicely. But when his father tells him to stop messing with the Deuce, a powerful local gang, the kid shoots him a blank stare of disbelief. Why should he give up his one source of money, pride, power? The gang means more to him than the loving entreaty of his own flesh and blood.
Even with Oliver Stone’s name in the credits (he served as executive producer), South Central has received almost no publicity or media fanfare. Many viewers may assume it’s little more than a quickie attempt to cash in on the tragedy of the L.A. riots. They shouldn’t make that mistake. Directed by Steve Anderson, South Central is an impassioned B movie — less technically accomplished than John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood but, I think, even more emotionally stirring. Once again, the cataclysmic realities of L.A. youth-gang violence come filtered through the story of a saddened, embattled father struggling to keep his son away from the clutches of gang life. This time, though, the father himself has blood on his hands. Bobby is a former member of the Deuce, the gang that’s threatening to turn his kid into a zombie killer. In its low-budget way, South Central gets inside the cultish insidiousness of youth gangs — the way they become substitute families, making violence attractive by turning it into the only reality.
The movie opens in 1982. Bobby, a cool, pragmatic homeboy with a gaze of grim fury, is initiated into the Deuce when he assassinates the gang’s chief rival, a ’70s-style pusher-pimp. He ends up in prison, leaving Jimmie to be raised by his PCP-addicted mother. As the kid comes of age and begins to fraternize with the Deuce, Bobby undergoes a spiritual conversion under the hand of Ali (Carl Lumbly), a convicted murderer who has dedicated himself to breaking ”the black man’s cycle of hate.” Whatever reservations one may have about this idealized character melt away in the heat of Lumbly’s performance, which mingles pride with suffocating rage.
What makes Bobby’s transformation inspiring rather than just Hollywood hokey (though it’s that, too) is his lack of overt heroism. He’s just an ordinary man working to rid his soul of violence. Glenn Plummer, with his odd, horsey face (he resembles a young John Amos), gives a fascinating double performance. At first he seems merely harsh and dour. But as the movie goes on, Plummer reveals a new, expressive tenderness. It’s as if Bobby were shedding the poisonous skin of gang psychology. The climax, in which he pleads with Jimmie to lay down his gun, is startlingly powerful. Whatever its melodramatic shortcomings, South Central offers a wrenching view of modern youth-gang violence by demonstrating, with desperate candor, that the civilized alternatives are fast disappearing. B+