We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Robert Townsend's "In the Hive" tells the story of a young man pulled from his father's gang and forced into a reform school. We may expect that we are about to see a tardy inspirational film from 1990s South Central Los Angeles, in which a young man undergoes a personal transformation, with the usual melodramatic difficulties, leading to triumph in the third act. But this is about a real school in North Carolina and the film does not indulge sentimentality.
His name is Xtra (played by rapper Jonathan 'Lil J' McDaniel, of the Disney Channel show That's So Raven) and beneath the longing eyes and rugged chin, he stubbornly adheres to his own philosophy. Nobody can tell him how to live, and revenge is as necessary as the air. His father (Roger Guenveur Smith) tries control him from prison. His mother (Vivca A. Fox) loses her exhausting job on a nursing home night-shift, and now derives income from the oldest profession. Xtra is left to raise his younger siblings, and his newborn son.
But as a new student in the Hive, he's trained (against his will) to drop the illusions of toughness and become a man. He gets help from three new mentors. Parker (Ali Liebert) is a hesitant new English teacher, far removed from her upper-class comforts. Her idealistic liberal beliefs are tested by her vulnerability in the classroom. She finds herself resorting to some feelings of prejudice, and we know that one side or the other will win: Either her compassion for her students will prevail, or she will flee back to the shelter of her trust fund.
A stronger presence is Mr. Hollis (Michael Clarke Duncan in one of his final roles). He is the fearless father to these young men, giving them their doses of confidence, discipline, and tenderness. Duncan is perfect here, and so likeable. I wanted more. In one scene he presents his students with the cold reality that, statistically speaking, only one (or half of one) of them will succeed in life. The rest will murder, get murdered, or drop out. It feels as though Townsend is pontificating, but it had me thinking about the plight of young African-American, in contrast to two decades ago (when we first discovered Townsend). Things have not changed much. But regardless of the message, Duncan commands our attention in a way he rarely had the chance to in his career.