Teach right, do wrong

Samuel L. Jackson battles as a high school educator in LA.

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As dramatic entertainment, Kevin Reynolds' 187 is easily worth three stars, with a serviceable script, capable directing, fine performances (particularly from Samuel L. Jackson as an embattled teacher and Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez who plays his homeboy nemesis), and a plot line that mostly avoids "Welcome Back, Kotter" clichés. But that's only half the story -- the less important half.

Jackson's character, Trevor Garfield, teaches high school, successfully, in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

Then something bad happens and he ends up, 15 months later, permanently shaken and subbing in Los Angeles. That's where the majority of the action takes place, centering on Trevor's confrontation with a bunch of gang kids and attendant hangers-on. Violence is the rule, "one-eight-seven" being the police code for homicide and a description of what the students do to each other and to teachers, who are routinely threatened with murder in return for bad grades.

If that were all 187 had going, it would be enough to make this a significant, generic "problem" film of the Dangerous Minds variety, the kind of movie that garners obligatory serious comment. And also not a few private sighs of relief that "we" don't have to live like "those people."

But this genre piece is also a film of ideas, a four-star parable about the conflict, fundamental to American democracy, between law and justice, between the withering of social institutions and the consequent peril of the individual. Only a cynic could talk about liberty when confronted with the rotten fruit of our system, which Ericson Core (photography director) has translated to a brilliant visual metaphor, making the golden light of utopic LA seem overripe and putrid.

They robbed me of "my passion, my unguarded self," Trevor complains, referring to the crimes perpetrated against him. But who's the perpetrator really? Who, now, has access to an unguarded sense of self? What crimes have we committed against each other, the film asks, in the pursuit of the Pyrrhic freedom to do as we individually please? They're the right questions.

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