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Above the Rim intrigues with powerful themes

Above the Rim

Directed by Jeff Pollack.

Written by Barry Michael Cooper

and Jeff Pollack.

Starring Duane Martin, Tupac Shakur,

Marlon Wayans, Leon, and Bernie Mac.

Loews Copley.

By Christopher Chiu
Staff Reporter

Above the Rim is an intriguing film that, like its characters, overcomes many obstacles. With a plot that pits good against evil, it could have degenerated into an long, overwrought soap opera, but such is not the case. And while basketball is one of the underlying themes in this film, Above the Rim is not simply a collection of highlights. Instead of tumbling into these pitfalls, director Jeff Pollack and the talented cast have created a powerful drama without cliches.

The movie itself is about Kyle-Lee Wilson (Duane Martin), a high school basketball phenom who's hoping to get recruited by Georgetown. As the film develops, a struggle ensues over who will control his future. Through his best friend Bugaloo (Marlon Wyans), Kyle is introduced to Birdie (Tupac Shakur), a ruthless drug dealer who always sports a smile on his face and a razor in his mouth. Birdie tries to recruit Kyle to work for him using money and women as bait. Birdie has two powerful forces working against him, though: Mailika (Tonya Pinkins), the boy's mother, and Shep (Leon), a former high school basketball star who now works as security guard. This rather simple plot could have been cribbed from a after-school TV special; what saves the story line is the refreshing way Pollack presents the problems black youths like Kyle must face.

For example, the film suggests basketball is a better way out of the ghetto than getting good grades. While such a view may rile educators, it makes perfect sense from Kyle's standpoint. Basketball isn't violent, it can be a free ticket to a college education, and could even lead to millions of dollars if you can play in the NBA. Plus, being a good player is a quality that commands respect, even more so than money. In this sense, Above the Rim captures the importance of the game in the lives of Kyle and his friends.

This idea is just one of several very strong themes that repeat themselves throughout the movie. Another of these messages is presented in the beginning of the movie. When Kyle initially meets Birdie, he is told that "being alone makes you strong." The real meaning behind this sentence, however, only comes out during the course of the film. The explanation begins in the middle of the movie, when Kyle makes a shocking discovery: Shep and Birdie, the security guard and the drug dealer, were brothers. Even though they were born to the same parents, they could not be more different. Shep is laconic and restrained. He never shows emotion. To be exact, he never shows just how much hurt there is on the inside. The problem is, he never will stand his ground, neither on the court nor in his personal life, which is why he remains only a security guard.

On the other hand, Birdie is flamboyant and extravagant in his clothes, in his spending habits, and even in how he murders his enemies. He is restrained, but in a different way; he never shows his true emotions unless he is outside of the general public's eye. Birdie's difficulty is that he must rely on his henchmen simply to stay alive; the threat of being gunned down by his adversaries is always there.

As for Kyle, he is an only child, but for much of the movie he thinks everyone owes him something.

Kyle's mother is under the most pressure of all the characters, for she must work hard to support herself and her son. However, while Kyle, Shep, and Birdie are all physically stronger than Mailika, her self-reliance makes her stronger than any of them.

At last the meaning of Birdie's aphorism is clear. What Pollack is trying to tell us is that self-reliance, to be able to support yourself and be secure in your abilities, is a source of strength. During the course of the film, Kyle must learn that the world does not revolve around him. He must do things for himself to improve his chances of getting into college, rather than waiting for schools to call him.

It is this very idea of strength and weakness that makes the characterizations so moving. With the exception of Kyle's mother, every character has their own Achilles heel. Kyle is a superb basketball player, but he tends to be too selfish. This gets him in trouble everywhere: on the basketball court he misses opportunities for his teammates to score by taking every shot himself and never passing the ball. Off the court, he never treats the people around him -- his mother, his coach (David Bailey), Shep -- with enough respect. Shep is the best basketball talent in the neighborhood, but he is, as Kyle's mother put it, a "runner." He always runs away from his problems rather than standing up to them and trying to solve them. He is haunted by memories of his best friend (and teammate) falling off a rooftop and by his lack of success as a basketball player outside of high school. Birdie has money, women, and weapons, but his secret relationship with Shep is an embarrassment to him, and he is insecure about his money after being poor for so much of his life. Kyle's coach, is a hard working, honest man who really doesn't know how to motivate kids who are one-fourth of his age. Bugaloo is a wonderful comedian and has street smarts, but he never knows when to be serious, when to laugh, and when to cry.

This explains what makes Above the Rim so memorable. The movie presents a vivid study of how each of these characters tries to succeed at life. Just as in basketball, each must use his strengths to overcome weaknesses: not just physical weaknesses, but mental ones as well. With its powerful themes, Above the Rim may very well be one of the finest films of the year.