By Ralph Novak
July 22, 1991 12:00 PM

Larry Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr.

While it’s often as pedantic and square as an Army training film, this movie about black teens trying to grow up in a gang-plagued South Central Los Angeles area generates strong emotions. And 23-year-old writer-director John Singleton’s sturdy cast keeps his too-symbolic characters from turning into cardboard.

Fishburne is a smart, race-conscious home loan agent who raises his son, Gooding, after his ex-wife gives up the boy. Gooding becomes the neighborhood’s model student, while rapper Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut play brothers, a thuggish type and an aspiring football player.

Singleton’s script touches on critical issues: responsible parenthood, AIDS, racism, unwanted pregnancy, the importance of education and black solidarity. But every issue is accompanied by a preachy piece of dialogue.

Fishburne, taking Gooding into a dangerous area, allays his fears by saying: “It’s the ’90s. We can’t afford to be afraid of our own people anymore.” Then he gives a lecture on gentrification of black neighborhoods.

When he thinks Gooding has been sleeping with a girlfriend, Fishburne scolds, “You been using the rubbers I gave you, haven’t you?”

Even Gooding gets into the pulpit, saving an infant playing in the street from a car and then lecturing her mother, “Keep your baby out of the street. And change her diaper.”

Singleton fares better with incidental aspects of his film—the sound of police helicopters constantly buzzing overhead, random gunfire erupting in the background, street scenes of gang members prowling idly, the sense of a communitywide claustrophobia.

Fishburne (Class Action, Cadence) acts his way through most of Singleton’s verbiage, conveying the determination of a father trying to give his son a chance. Gooding, Ice Cube and Chestnut say more with their attitudes than with their dialogue too, and Tyra Ferrell, as the brothers’ mother, seems aptly desperate. These are well-rounded, ultimately sympathetic characters.

And while in one speech Fishburne excoriates whites for filling black areas with gun and liquor stores—”They want us to kill ourselves”—this comes across as just one racist digression in a complex argument. The brutal gang members are black, as are some brutal cops. The film seems less a political debate than a source of inspiration for a political debate.

Singleton does add an epilogue telling what “happened” to his main characters, as if his story were based on real individuals (which it isn’t). That’s disorienting and unnecessary. The movie rings all too true as it is. (R)