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EDUCATION OF SONNY CARSON, THE(director: Michael Campus; screenwriters: based on the novel by Sonny Carson/Fred Hudson; cinematographer: Edward R. Brown; editors: Moe Howard/ Edward A. Warschilka; music: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson; cast: Rony Clanton (Sonny Carson), Don Gordon (Pigliani), Paul Benjamin (Pops), Joyce Walker (Virginia), Mary Alice (Moms), Jerry Bell (Lil Boy), Thomas Hicks (Young Sonny), B.T. Taylor (Crazy), Roger Davis (Willie), Derrick Champ Ford (Wolfe) Ram John Holder(Preacher); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Irwin Yablans; Kit Parker Films/VCI Entertainment; 1974)
“The film leaves its heart out there for all to see.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is one of those historical films where what it represents is more important than how its dramatics play out. The filmmaking is open for criticism because of the stilted acting from both the professional actors and the nonprofessionals, and because of its mostly humorless approach to its topic. It took its streetwise characters far too seriously and treated them with kid gloves, never laying a hand on them. Many of the actors were actually gang members playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The most solid acting performance was achieved by Rony Clanton playing Sonny Carson, as he was able to get at his character’s inner anger and sadness. What he failed to get at was his dreams, though in one scene he smoked weed with fellow gang members and they all shared their momentary fantasies–such as one gang member wanting to fly straight to the sun and going somewhere no one else can touch him. Also, Paul Benjamin as Sonny’s stern, hard-working pop, gives a caring performance as the perplexed father who doesn’t quite know how to deal with his son. Their scenes together offered some tender moments to a complicated father-son relationship.

The film also had a few gritty scenes that were marvelous examples of first-class filmmaking. My favorite was a stirring parade through the streets of Brooklyn by the gangs and to a lesser degree a follow-up to the parade that leads to a senseless deadly gang fight between Sonny’s gang called the Lords (in reality the Bishops) and the Hawks, that was staged in Prospect Park. This was followed by a powerful sermon given by Ram John Holder as the possessed preacher, where he connects Lil Boy’s (Bell) death with the devastating effects leftover from the days of slavery on the black people and thereby implicates his entire community as being guilty of the crime. Another memorable scene was Sonny’s initiation into the gang, where he had to run through “the mill” as the Lords formed a path consisting of parallel lines and beat him with a pipe or chain as he ran by them.

The story opens with Sonny as a sixth grade elementary honor roll student with an A average being honored with a citizenship award for his essay on “Why he’s proud to be an American” by his white teachers, with his classmates and his proud parents looking on. But life changes when he gets caught in a botched burglary of a grocery store and he gets sent to a state reform school. When he returns to his Brooklyn haunts he joins the Lords, as his reform school bro Willie (Roger Davis) told him to look them up when he gets out. He goes through vocational high school mostly skipping school or making zip guns in class while actively hanging with the gang and rising to a leadership position as war counselor. On a rowdy subway ride with his gang in tow he picks up Virginia (Joyce Walker), who soon after becomes his girl. As a result of the before mentioned gang fight he’s touched by the stabbing death of his close friend, and when he can’t afford to buy flowers for the funeral he mugs a messenger. He gets picked up by the police and receives a brutal beating in the police station while handcuffed by a detective (Don Gordon) who hates him. For his theft he’s sentenced 1 to 3 years in a state reform prison, and serves the full term when he disses the parole board. On his release at the age of 19, he finds his best friend Crazy (Taylor) and his girlfriend Virginia strung out on heroin and decides to take a different path.

Director Michael Campus (“The Mack“) chronicles the life of Sonny Carson as a youth in the mean streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, ghetto areas where the Brooklynite was raised. The film leaves its heart out there for all to see. The potent message it wanted to voice, is Sonny’s motto of “No justice. No peace.” But it never got around to film him when he matured and therefore that motto was never delivered. After the film ended in the 1950s he eventually rose to become executive director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) by the late 1960s, and became known as a headline grabber and outspoken activist during the NYC school crisis.

This highly charged and emotional telling of Sonny’s experiences as a young black man who never trusted the white man and easily fell into a youthful period of street violence and became a badass lets us in on his upbringing. But it too suddenly ends upon his release from jail for us to fully grasp the gravitas of his story. On the outside again, he finds his gang is no longer functioning — that most of them are either strung out on drugs or doing time. Before we can see how this affected him, the film is over. All we’re left with, is his startled look of disbelief on his kisser and with our realization that this bad dude got his education on the mean streets of Brooklyn.

I could see how this film would be considered by many as a rich source for tracing the urban rise in gangs during the 1950s and showing the black man’s anger with the system as it relates to the oppression he still feels he’s under from America’s track record of racism. It might be a film that only views things from Sonny’s perspective but it puts some faces behind all the racial upheavals that began in the late 1950s and mushroomed in the 1960s, and lives up to its claim to being a disturbing work that merits serious thought. But it doesn’t live up to its DVD jacket blurb claim that boldly states “If this movie doesn’t make you stand proud… you don’t deserve to stand at all. It’s time, man. Damn, it’s time.” I don’t appreciate someone telling me I better like something or else, as I’m perfectly capable of making up my own mind. I wouldn’t want to make too much of that misguided blurb, but it did raise my antenna as to the film’s expectations it holds, at least, for this viewer.

Outside of this film’s presentation of Sonny’s life I can’t tell you much about him to challenge the veracity of what I saw, except I recall his name from newspaper headlines in the 1960s and somewhat recall his controversial political activist role in calling for community control of the NYC educational system and challenging the racist attitude and apathy of the system (he was deeply involved in the controversy over the much publicized Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district). From what I recall from the newspaper accounts, things got pretty ugly with his involvement as it helped put a rift through the traditional friendly relationships between the black and mostly liberal Jewish communities. This is a rift that still persists from those days.

Sonny was born in 1935 and died of a heart attack in December 2002, as he survived the era of Brooklyn street gangs, smoking weed, prison, getting wounded when in the army during the Korean conflict, serving hard time for a murder rap and his NYC days in the civil rights movement. In his later years, he became a pillar of the black nationalist community and always remained an activist (he even changed his name to Mwalamu Imiri Abubadika and started a campaign to rid his community of crack–the Black Man’s Movement Against Crack).

It might be more telling what the film left out than in glorifying his youthful exploits without a second opinion. His autobiography, The Education of Sonny Carson, a book which the film is based on certainly acted as a deification of him but it also served as a graphic expos√© of police brutality. I could see why this is a very important landmark film for African-Americans and how many filmmakers, politicos and rap artists look back on it as both an inspiration and a way of getting a feel for how the times have changed. In one way it seems like the times have moved so fast that we’re looking back at Sonny’s story as if it were stuck in a serious time warp, but on the other hand the same problems that the black community tried to grapple with back then are still not resolved.

It’s relevant to know that Carson was an energetic zealot for the self-determination of his people, whom he considered “kidnapped Africans in America” in their own neighborhoods. Also, that he was someone who could not live with compromise and always made his opinions loudly known. This resulted in him being labeled as a firebrand, anti-Semite, and racist by his critics. It might be good at times not to compromise, but life experiences have taught me to beware of such characters–they always believe they are right and you can’t move them off a dime. All arguments have opposing sides and one should be open-minded to them and in a fair way decide, rather than self-righteously gloat about not compromising (think Reverend Al Sharpton!). In any case, the only way to resolve political issues is to compromise without compromising your principles. But to Sonny’s credit, he got away from dealing with his problems in a violent criminal manner and was someone I would guess could be looked at either for all the good he did or for all the hatred he stirred up. What you make of him, is probably a reflection of where you are coming from politically and racially.

Considering the low-budget constraints of the film, this DVD had a reasonably good quality to it. In the press notes it was useful to find out that the film was originally released by Paramount and was a box office hit when it opened in 1974, but it inexplicably disappeared from the public eye only to reappear years later in the form of pirated home videos. The new DVD release is based on the best surviving prints available.

REVIEWED ON 2/24/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”