By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 21, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

On the run-down streets of the Bronx where writer-director Darnell Martin grew up and where she sets I Like It Like That, everyone knows everyone’s business. In the thick of the gossip are Lisette (Lauren Vélez) and Chino Linares (Jon Seda), a young, attractive, squabbling black and Latino couple with three tiny kids, whose lives are overturned when Chino (a bike messenger) goes to jail for looting during a blackout and Lisette dares to take a job.

For the tenderness and generosity with which Martin explores life in her own backyard, I Like It Like That is most closely related to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. But Martin’s particular impressive gifts are a sexiness and a just-do-it-girlfriend practicality that is, I do believe, inextricably a part of her feminine sensibility. It’s a sensibility that allows her to give Lisette a funny, believable, transvestite brother who is neither a cartoon nor a tragic figure; it’s also a sensibility that knows exactly how to compare breasts (Lisette hates that hers are small; a local vixen who wants to steal Chico away preens because hers are large) in language that is just as teasing and heartfelt as such a fundamental subject requires.

Much is being made about the news that Martin is the first black woman to make a major studio movie. Good for her — that’s a nice diploma to have. But she’s not the one who needs the certificate. Columbia deserves the attaboy clap on the back for having latched on to such an intelligent, confident filmmaker at the start of her career. As she hones her pacing and masters the shaping of her content (in her urge to pack in everything this time out, she overloads us in mid-drama), Martin is a talent to follow. One day, you watch, a Darnell Martin Film will be as immediately recognizable as a Spike Lee Joint. B+