'Being Black Enough': Film Review

Not entirely successful but undeniably gutsy.

The debut feature centers on a young black man who grew up in white suburbia and is determined to establish his street cred.

Straight outta the San Fernando Valley, a college-bound comics geek, played by writer-director Devin Rice, embarks on a project to discover his inner gangsta in Being Black Enough. Made on a reported shoestring of less than $25,000 and subtitled or (How to Kill a Black Man), the movie is notable for its DIY moxie and its readiness to tackle a complex subject head-on.

The self-taught Rice — who also produced, with his off-screen partner, Jacqueline Rice, as well as editing and handling other postproduction duties — takes real risks as he delves into what it means for a black American to be laughed at, as he was in his youth, for being "too white." In search of answers, the feature moves between comedy and drama, breaks the fourth wall, deploys graphic jolts of text, turns convos into dialectics and occasionally slips into the realm of the surreal.

Though the filmmaker's confidence at times outstrips the execution, his decidedly non-formulaic approach is a refreshing break from the three-act conformity of too many first films (a four-hour director's cut, complete with overture and intermission, is also in the offing). The movie is receiving a Los Angeles theatrical run before Freestyle Releasing brings it to digital formats.

The heart of the matter is laid bare in the opening sequence, a mini-essay on identity and pop culture images, with Rice dressed up as W. E. B. DuBois to deliver the writer's musings on the "double consciousness" of the black American. The story proper concerns Cody (Rice), a good kid who, as he's about to begin classes at USC, becomes consumed with the question of his blackness. In a terrifically played comic scene that captures how between worlds he feels, Cody channels a ranting Tupac in his suburban bedroom, only to be interrupted by his mother (Gina Jackson, impressive in a small role), who invites him on an ice-cream run.

Compelled by his foolish gangsta aspirations, Cody soon takes a detour from classes to hang in South L.A. with his older cousin, Kyle (Bruce A. Lemon Jr., the cast's standout). Kyle tries to dissuade him from his laser focus on learning about "black culture," but the single-minded Cody refuses to see that the struggles he fetishizes are circumstances that Kyle and his neighbors want to escape. Kyle enlists his friends (Marcus Ajose, Matthew-David Smith, Joshua Walker, all strong) to help school Cody in the fundamentals, which begin with malt liquor, weed, guns and the requisite strip club, where Cody wonders aloud, mid-lap-dance, "Isn't this degrading to women?"

The sections revolving around the two cousins and Kyle's friends are generally the strongest in the film, at once recreating and deconstructing mainstream images of the urban "black experience." At several points characters insist that "this is reality, not a movie," but the narrative that unfolds is very much a movie, its expressionistic flourishes illuminating the self-defeating tactics and frontier mentality of life in the margins. Two scenes address gun violence with particular inventiveness and power. The first, Cody's real-world introduction to high-powered weapons that he recognizes from gaming, is comically pointed. The second, a startling and bold war-movie combat sequence, perfectly communicates the ways reality and fiction feed each other and shape perception.

Until that late-in-the-proceedings coup, the film's satirical edge gradually gives way to more conventional melodrama. Its bite softens and clunky passages interrupt the flow of cinematic verve. A Romeo and Juliet plot strand involves Cody's secret relationship with a Latina (Danielle Jaffey), the sister of his best friend (D.J. Hale). Another close friend, Serah (Jacqueline Rice), a police academy student who finds herself riding shotgun with a racist cop (Peter DiVito), loses track of Cody as he slides deeper into his new life.

His transformation finally feels more symbolic than moment-to-moment believable, but Rice never loses sight of his story's moral underpinnings. Not every tactic in his arsenal works, but at its strongest, Being Black Enough undermines expectations in ways that are imaginative, thoughtful and deeply felt. This is one from the heart.

Production companies: Devin Rice Studios, Wassel Media
Cast: Devin Rice, Bruce A. Lemon, Jr., Marcus Ajose, Matthew-David Smith, Joshua Walker, Danielle Jaffey, Jacqueline Rice, D.J. Hale, Mark Ridley, Peter DiVito, Gina Jackson
Director: Devin Rice
Screenwriter: Devin Rice
Producers: Jacqueline Rice, Devin Rice
Director of photography: Devin Rice
Production designers: Jacqueline Rice, Devin Rice
Editor: Devin Rice
Story editor (theatrical cut): Steven David Horwich
Casting directors: Devin Rice, Jacqueline Rice

91 minutes