Lift (2001)


(director: DeMane Davis /Khari Streeter; screenwriter: DeMane Davis/based on a story by Ms. Davis and Mr. Streeter; cinematographer: David Phillips; editor: Peter Barstis/Lee Percy; music: Ryan Shore/Cassandra Wilson; cast: Kerry Washington (Niecy), Lonette McKee (Elaine), Eugene Byrd (Angelo), Todd Williams (Christian), Samantha Brown (Camille), Sticky Fingaz (Quik), Braun Philip (Dent), Barbara Montgomery (France, Niecy’s grandmother), Jacqui Parker (Aunt Lily), Pooch Hall (Derek), Daniel Laurent (Jamal), Naheem Allah (Uncle Michael), Susan Alger (Shelly), Annette Miller (Miss Kearns), Georgia Lyman (Kira); Runtime: 85; Showtime; 2001)
“Lift is a worthy film that has something to say when it lets the action speak for itself, but when it starts speaking about the action — the film feels tired.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This black experience story set in Boston, “Lift”, is about the coming-to-her-senses of Niecy (Kerry Washington), a smart young African-American woman who is meticulously dressed and is all about style and fashion as a means of getting self-esteem. She’s a booster (shoplifter) who lives in the inner-city but works in an upscale department store, Kennedy’s (a good name for a Boston store!). “Lift” is made in conjunction with the Sundance Institute, and tells this young woman’s sobering story of trying to win her embittered and cold mother Elaine’s (Lonette McKee) love by stealing expensive gifts for her such as a David Yurman necklace. Trying to steal this necklace is what she wants to do most and it is what brings her back to reality in understanding that what she’s doing is dangerous and criminal. She usually works alone and is non-violent, but she hooks up with her boyfriend’s former team — a ‘smash and grab’ booster gang — headed by the vile Christian (Williams), in order to get the necklace. The botched robbery alters her life. The indie film bandies around an assortment of name brands such as Armani, Marc Jacobs, and Versace, as it points out that those in the black community crave these items. Its story focuses on the poor wearing designer brands to compensate for all the psychological failings in their life, as Niecy’s Aunt Lily (Jacqui Parker) sums up the film’s theme by saying: “Black people need therapy, too.”

The film is most effective in showing the materialistic trap Niecy sets for herself, as she expends all her talent and energy by shoplifting when she could have used her talent to get ahead the legitimate way. But the realistic story co-written and directed with flair by DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter becomes painfully predictable and by the time the film reaches its inevitable finale, only what is obvious is presented and the film collapses into an uninspiring conclusion that highlights the evils of crime. An ending that any formulaic Hollywood film would easily recognize as one of theirs. What remains absorbing is the expressive performance by Kerry Washington who lifts this ordinary family story beyond its contrivances and brings home to a wider audience how blacks are also caught in the narrow mindset of materialism and the limited agendas of their community. Barbara Montgomery in a supporting role as the loving grandmother that Niecy never understood as being as good as she is, deserves credit for giving the film a wonderful role model.

Niecy is so good at boosting, that she takes “orders” from friends and acquaintances for items acquired with stolen credit cards or gained when she goes on a shoplifting binge in upscale stores and stuffs them under her dress into a trap girdle. In her personal life things are less certain, as she loves her argumentative boyfriend Angelo (Eugene Byrd), despite the fact he has little chance of bettering himself even though he’s no longer a booster. But she has difficulty keeping the relationship going, even when she knows that he loves her and finds out that she’s pregnant and he’s the father.

There are many subplots that try but fail to lift the film to loftier heights; such as a heist that goes bad, a tragic shooting, and a family gathering that shows how uncommunicative Niecy’s close family can be. But the story is basically twofold: about the black obsession with name brands and a family lesson that has to be learned the hard way.

Winner of the 2001 Grand Jury Prize at New York’s Urban World Film Festival, “Lift” is a worthy film that has something to say when it lets the action speak for itself, but when it starts speaking about the action the film feels tired. There’s just not enough of a good story to make it any better than passable entertainment and a strictly cable channel type of film.