From its poetic opening collage of images of a new day dawning in South-Central L.A., you have the feeling that Michele Ohayon's "Colors Straight Up" is going to be special, and it turns out to be that and much more. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by this film, nominated this week for an Academy Award for best documentary.
Ohayon, whose outstanding "It Was a Wonderful Life" acquainted us with women we wouldn't guess were homeless, now introduces us to the wonderful people of Colors United, an extracurricular school project launched in 1989 at Jordan High School. The program offers the challenge of performing in musical theater as an escape from gang life.
When we meet the students and Colors United's leader Phil Simms, a warm, bear of a man who knows when to give a hug and when to lay down the law, and veteran singer-songwriter-actor Kingston DuCoeur, whose motto is "Function in disaster, finish in style," they are directing the young people in staging a loose musical adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" called "Watts Side Story."
Right away, Ohayon points up the connection between art and life for the Colors United kids when she cuts from a rumble in rehearsal to the funeral of a 16-year-old victim of a drive-by shooting.
As vibrant as the documentary's rehearsal scenes are, Ohayon uses them as a point of departure for exploring--with an amazing lack of unobtrusiveness--the lives of several Colors United members. "Colors Straight Up," photographed warmly by Theo Van de Sande, has an easy flow to it, and it is greatly enhanced by a score that incorporates both African American and Latino rhythms.
All of the students Ohayon singles out have either been in a gang themselves or had siblings in one. All of them have family problems that makes the solidarity of gang life so treacherously appealing. All of them are resisting pressures to give into despair and throw away their futures, yet Simms believes that sometimes the path young people take in life is "just a hug away."
Several of these young people are unforgettable. First, there's Oscar Sierra, a youth of intelligence and ambition whose strong leadership qualities have been diverted from leading a gang to becoming a Jordan student body president, thanks to Colors United. While working toward getting his sister out of gang life, he's honest enough to admit that he's still tempted by it himself. Sierra, in fact, supplies some real-life suspense about his own fate when he's arrested for driving a car with a suspended license, which puts him as well as Simms and DuCoeur on the line with Sierra's probation officer.
Then there's Stanley Elam, a talented young dancer who gets reinforcement from a brother in prison. Both brothers despair of their drug-addicted mother, Judy, who admits that "when my husband passed, it was like I died, too." And then there's LaToya "Lovely" Howlett, who lives up to her nickname and manages to get out of gang life and land a part in the TV series "Dangerous Minds."
Not all the kids are going to wind up professionals, of course, but their self-esteem is boosted immeasurably by Simms and DuCoeur's potent mix of psycho-drama and show biz. In this light it's to Colors United's great credit that the students can't participate unless they maintain a 2.2 grade average. The organization offers an alternative to gangbanging, not homework.
Fittingly, "Colors Straight Up" ends with a high school graduation ceremony, a first in the families of a number of the students. Starting with six students in 1989, Simms and DuCoeur--who have also established Colors United at Locke and Venice high schools--have by now touched the lives of some 400 young people. Everyone who's stayed with the program wound up with their high school diplomas.
And as a documentary, "Colors Straight Up" is as admirable as the program that inspired it.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some strong language.
'Colors Straight Up'
An Echo Pictures presentation. Director Michele Ohayon. Producers Julia Schachter, Ohayon. Cinematographer Theo Van de Sande. Editor Edgar Burcksen. Original music composed, produced and performed by John Barnes, Mino Cinelu, Joseph Julian Gonzalez, Robert Jerald and the Jazzhole. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
* At the Grande 4-Plex through Thursday, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268. "Colors Straight Up" will also play Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.