Be a Man, by David Bax
Telling a story about the labyrinth of the criminal drug trafficking enterprise in Baltimore’s black community is inevitably going to draw comparisons to HBO’s landmark series The Wire. Sheldon Candis’ LUV – despite featuring brief turns from Wire alums like Michael K. Williams, Chris Clanton and Anwan Glover – perhaps strains too hard to separate itself from its imposing forebear. While David Simon’s television experiment most closely resembled a fictionalized opus of investigative journalism, Candis goes for the occasional flight of Malickian ethereal meditation and then confusingly veers hard into Greek tragedy. The result is a film that may be respectable in its ambitions but still falls far short of them.
Michael Rainey, Jr. plays Woody, an eleven-year-old living with his grandmother (Lonette McKee) and his recently paroled uncle, Vincent (Common). Woody’s mother lives in another state for reasons that come into focus as the film progresses. One morning, instead of dropping Woody off at school, Vincent decides to spend a day giving his nephew lessons on how to be a man. Instead, Woody receives an exhaustive seminar in how difficult it can be for someone like Vincent to become an honest, rule-abiding citizen. Choices he made as a young man – if he ever had any choices at all – have grown into a formless conspiracy to keep him scraping on the wrong side of the law. Woody, for no reason other than where he lives, may be headed for the same fate. LUV is at its strongest when it forces you to consider what small options the boy might have to live the respectable life for which his uncle yearns.
In addition to those already listed, Candis employs some serious weight in his cast. Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover and Dennis Haysbert represent the older generations who have traversed the same path as Vincent and found a way to survive, at least this far. Unfortunately for these heavy hitters and the other members of Candis’ ensemble, they’ve been directed to perform as if they’re playing in an outdoor auditorium with no amplification. We know Haysbert is a bad guy because he’s practically snarling and growling with every line reading just as we know we can’t trust Glover because he’s constantly casting suspicious glances. In a strictly intellectual way, this reinforces the film’s theme of inevitability. But it also robs the experience of any mystery given that we can see each development from half the movie away.
Meanwhile, a surprising amount of suspense is offered by Gavin Kelly’s cinematography. Though the focus is sharp, the colors are just slightly dim and muted, as if we’re seeing things in the brief moment a cloud has passed over the sun. Kelly is always suggesting that either rain or sunshine could be a heartbeat away.
That seems to be Candis’ aim as well. The ingredients for a tragedy are simple. Like the ancient Greeks, Candis and co-screenwriter Justin Wilson have presented a character that is mostly good but, as we understand the further into the tale we get, will likely never achieve his respectable goals because of fatal flaws or choices made long ago. Vincent is so very close to being a positive figure for Woody that we soon become sickened by the events and long-ingrained traits that are keeping him from breaking free. Candis and Wilson are not timid when it comes to the points they’re making about the severely limited options for black men in places like inner-city Baltimore. They are so bold, in fact, that they’ve chosen to illustrate those points with a paint gun instead of brushstrokes.
It’s unfortunate that LUV isn’t more successful than it is because there’s lots of compelling stuff at work. Yet it’s marred by its predictability. The only things you haven’t already guessed at are those that are too implausible to have foreseen. That ham-handedness is LUV’s fatal flaw. Like Vincent, it’s nearly good but its fate was sealed from the beginning.