Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Halls of Anger (1970)

          Years after Sidney Poitier blazed a path by playing righteously indignant African-American characters whose noble behavior shatters prejudice, the far less impressive actor Calvin Lockhart followed in Poitier’s footsteps by starring in this clunky but entertaining social drama about the forced integration of a primarily black school in Los Angeles. Lockhart, who cuts a handsome figure but twists dialogue in such a peculiar and stilted fashion that he’s unintentionally comical, plays Quincy Davis, a black teacher who escaped the ghetto for a job at a suburban school with white students. When redistricting integrates a tough school, officials recruit Quincy to become the school’s new vice principal—and to be the de facto ambassador between racial factions. Everything springing from this contrived scenario is as predictable as you might expect. Quincy clashes with the white principal, who feels black students should be herded like animals instead of treated like people. The angriest black student, J.T. (James A. Watson Jr.), decides to make an example of a white student, Doug (Jeff Bridges), by dragging Doug into fistfights. Meanwhile, Quincy heroically inspires black and white students alike to take their education seriously, employing such unconventional practices as getting male students excited about reading by introducing them to the sexy passages in D.H. Lawrence’s books.
          Halls of Anger also features such tired tropes as a basketball-game showdown between J.T. and Quincy—because, in the limited imaginations of the filmmakers behind Halls of Anger, all black men settle arguments with games of hoops—and a race riot that Quincy quells with his MLK-style homilies of nonviolence and understanding. Chances are that Halls of Anger already felt behind the times during its original release, and the movie seems positively primitive today. Nonetheless, it’s hard to actively dislike the picture, because it means well in a clumsy sort of way. Plus, for every weak element—including a cornball music score that makes onscreen events feel as frivolous as comic-book panels—there’s a redeeming quality. Chief among those redeeming qualities, of course, is the presence of Bridges, appearing in one of his very first features; although he doesn’t get an enormous amount of screen time, Bridges elevates his scenes with intensity and naturalism. Future TV stars Ed Asner and Rob Reiner appear in small roles, and DeWayne Jessie—best known for fronting the fictional R&B band Otis Day & the Knights in Animal House (1979)—contributes an enjoyable turn as a student whose education Quincy turns around.

Halls of Anger: FUNKY

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