Movie-A-Day: Raising the Heights (1995)

The movie that even Spike Lee thinks went too far

Cast

Trust me; you don’t care

Premise

In the culturally-divided Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the lives of a black teen and a Jewish reporter collide due to a high school crime ring. (check out the trailer here)

The obscurity of NetFlix’s library is quite astounding. One night, I found the Super Mario Bros. Super Show of all things. Unfortunately, not all of NetFlix’s stock are gems. For instance, there’s this film.

Raising The Heights seems to be a low-budget entry into the once popular “urban crime” genre. These included films like Boyz N The Hood and Juice. I also sense a large Spike Lee influence in it’s racial politics. That’s not a good thing. The most immediate issue with this film is how jarring the characters are in their racism. Early in the film, a black and Jewish character are eating dinner in different scenes. In the midst of a fairly mundane conversation, both characters begin angrily talking about each other’s cultures which results in an angry montage where they both get up from their seats and just start ranting directly at the audience. The Jewish guy even goes as far to say that they should “take a cue from the Italians and beat blacks with clubs“.

Did I forget to mention that the main theme of the film is that Jews and black hate each other? Because this film makes sure to remind us at every point. This was actually what made me interested in the film in the first place; fiction about African-American race relations rarely touch upon the interactions between blacks and other cultural/racial minorities. Unfortunately, the standard way of having this conversation in film is to make everyone a complete asshole. You’d be hard-pressed to name more than one character in films like Crash or Jungle Fever who’s remotely likable. Likewise, Raising The Heights‘ cast includes:

  • A Jewish mom who believes blacks are inherently stupid and helpless.
  • Her son (the guy who wants to club black people) who gets cocaine from the Hispanic super who lives in his basement and then stiffs him on payment after kicking his ass.
  • A black teen who buys “drugs” (never specified) from a local dealer with sex, yells at her mom for being poor and spits in the Jewish mom’s face for being an “uptight bitch”.
  • A co-worker of the reporter who casually calls his boss a “Jewish faggot” to his Jewish love interest’s face.

It’s a bad sign when the antagonist of the film, a drug-dealing, murderous, high school teacher who claims to “hate every nigger, Jew, faggot, gook, and spic that comes into this country” is your most enjoyable character. I get it, people are racist. But making every racist character a caricature lessens a work’s social commentary. Racism persists because of how endemic it is in our society. It’s an employer feeling “uncomfortable” hiring people with accents. It’s the airport security officer who is a little more grabby when a passenger has a turban. In order for the racial commentary to be resonant, it has to be able to get the common man to recognize how he/she is part of the problem. This can’t be accomplished with broad, unrelatable characters.

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In this film’s (paltry) defense, it’s definitely earnest. The two protagonists aren’t nearly as loathable as the supporting cast. The black kid is portrayed as someone legitimately interested in Jewish culture without the film shouting it at us. He also seems to be the only legitimate actor in the film, injecting at least some energy into the tired “noble, talented kid from the ghetto” character.

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The Jewish reporter is…meh. Her storyline highlights another major issue with the film: it doesn’t represent Jews that well. It’s not anti-semitic in it’s portrayal, it’s just not that deep. The reporter’s conflict is that she hides her Judaism in order to succeed as a reporter. But beyond changing her name from “Berkowitz” to “Burke”, we never really get a sense of what about Judaism she’s rejecting. We know she wants to fit in, but the film doesn’t portray her or her family as being THAT different from any of the “whites” in the film. The film assumes we just “get” what it means to be Jewish without actually elaborating on the particulars of the faith and history. I suspect that this film’s aspirations of being a “hood film” made it difficult to switch focus from it’s black teens onto it’s Jewish adults. The film’s final comment on Black+Jew Relations is good in theory, “Jews should be as proud of their identity as Blacks”, but lacks some punch in a film where Jews are secondary characters.

Overall, I’d say this was a well-meaning but lackluster film. It falls back on pretty much every stereotype imaginable and has some truly painful dialogue (from a ten-year old black kid “Hitler should’ve finished the job!“). I watched it looking for social commentary, but you should only watch it for laughs.

My rating: An upside down Black Power fist for LOWERING the heights of black film (see what I did there?)

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Stray Thoughts

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I’m honestly baffled as to what the film was doing with the evil teacher bad guy. I assume i’m supposed to feel that WASPs are the “true” villains of America, but why make him a schoolteacher? At least he’s racist to the point of hilarity: at one point, he gives a lecture about Martin Luther King getting shot to keep his students from snitching on him.

Brett Ratner (director of the Rush Hour series) was the music director for the film, showing that he’s made a career out of embarrassing black people.