Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
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.
The Queen Bee, nurturing all the growing Worker Bees, is Mrs. Inez (played with love by Loretta Devine). She is mother and grandmother. She runs the Hive mostly from the kitchen, happily cooking meals from morning into night. When necessary, she brings home groceries for the students. The Internet tells me that Vivian Saunders is the Hive's real-life Executive Director (and Cook), who realized that even the nurturing and diploma are not enough: students need expertise in technology to have a future in today's economy. I suspect this would have made a compelling thread, that is only hinted upon here. But this film focuses on Xtra's plight, not on any advertisements for the school.
If Xtra sees himself as an unstoppable force, then the Hive -- or, rather, Mrs. Inez -- is the immovable object. It's not easy for him to escape the clutches of his previous life. As he transforms, his girlfriend resists, choosing gang life over his emerging consciousness. He softens his anger.
But he still has trouble making peace with his father (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is very intimidating in the few minutes we see him. He is a muscular, smiling, whispering prisoner, and in their brief scenes together Xtra becomes such a little boy hoping for his father's validation.
Townsend is a familiar name, though his star has been shining mostly on the periphery of the Hollywood mainstream. He burst on the scene in 1987 with "Hollywood Shuffle," a broad satirical comedy about a man who considers selling out his family and honor for a Hollywood spotlight. Twenty-five years later, in "In the Hive," however, the challenge his protagonist faces is between maintaining his ties with harmful family elements and becoming a man of his own.
For every movie dedicated to showing the struggles of courage and transformation, maybe fifty of them depict the cathartic pleasure of revenge and anger. And films about young men escaping gangs inevitably feature tragedy. This film, however, refrains from giving us an ending that is either happy or heartbreaking. There is no graduation at the end. Only hopeful determination.