Based on a popular nonfiction book by real-life criminal-turned-activist Robert “Sonny” Carson, this deeply flawed drama tries to frame the crisis of African-American gang violence within a larger context of racial marginalization. Had the picture been executed with more responsibility and sophistication, it could easily have become one of the seminal black films of the ’70s. Instead, the movie reaches far beyond its grasp, because despite lots of grandiose talk about how the title character is the innocent victim of a cruel system, the storytellers tend to put the cart before the horse—in other words, they offer sociopolitical explanations for Sonny’s criminal acts after he’s committed them, which creates the effect of convenient justification instead of legitimate proof. What the film has to say may in fact be correct and important, but the argument is made poorly.
At the beginning of his journey, Sonny (played as a child by Thomas Hicks) is a tough street kid in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with gang violence. After serving a stretch in juvenile detention for petty theft, Sonny (played as an adult by Rony Clayton), joins street gang the Lords and becomes friends with fellow member Lil Boy (Jerry Bell). When Lil Boy is killed during a huge brawl with a rival gang, Sonny steals money to pay for flowers at Lil Boy’s funeral. This puts Sonny in the crosshairs of vicious cop Pilgilani (Don Gordon), who beats Sonny before shipping the young man off to prison. (Yes, the movie is so blunt that the main cop has a name including the word “pig.”)
While the preceding events might seem as if they should comprise merely the first 20 minutes of screen time, setting up Sonny’s odyssey through punishment and redemption, it takes more than an hour for Sonny to land in prison. This first hour of the movie is padded and slow, while the rest is rushed and superficial. Director Michael Campus lingers endlessly on marginal scenes, like an endless shot of Sonny and his girlfriend riding a ferry past Liberty Island or a ridiculous scene of a preacher (Ram John Holder) eulogizing Lil Boy. (There’s a hell of a lot of weeping in The Education of Sonny Carson.)
Even though the storytelling is clumsy, the notion that audiences are supposed to sympathize with the going-nowhere lives of inner-city youths comes across. Yet the actual dialogue in the picture doesn’t convey the message effectively. For instance, when Sonny asks a parole board who gave the board “the authority to impose your will on me,” he’s expressing the right sentiment to the wrong people. And so it goes throughout this frustrating movie, which is so weakly constructed that a key plot point of heroin addiction plaguing black neighborhoods isn’t even introduced until the last 10 minutes. There’s an impassioned and soulful drama buried inside The Education of Sonny Carson, but sifting through the dissonant and superfluous material takes work.
The Education of Sonny Carson: FUNKY