July 26th, 2020
rottentomatoes.com maintains a list of movies you can watch for free. Quite a few of them are awful, like “Dogtooth”. Others like “I Am Not Your Negro” are spectacular. “Dogtooth” was so wretchedly terrible and overrated that I plan to spend more time thinking and writing about it merely to have something positive result from so scarring an experience. If there is any doubt that evil exists in the world, keep in mind someone made “Dogtooth”.
tubi.tv is a free, Linux-friendly site that offers a decent selection of shows and movies. You’ll find the repugnant “Dogtooth” here, but also some actual movies that don’t make you hate humanity. Tubi has “Street Smart” as part of their Spotlight category. I’d never heard of “Street Smart” but I’ve liked some Morgan Freeman movies, or at least “Shawshank”. There’s a global pandemic, so what the hey?
“Street Smart” was released in 1987 and stars Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman. There’s a time-capsule aspect to watching portrayals of stars, cities, and interiors from the late eighties. I was a kid when the movie was released, and it’s interesting to see old soft drink logos and cars. Who my age doesn’t remember Reeve as Superman and think about how hard he tried to have a dignified life after injury?
Reeve is a magazine writer back in the days when people read things. Magazines even. Reeve has committed to writing about a pimp but is completely incapable of finding one. He’s clearly not cut out for the world he hopes to cover. In other words, no street smarts. So he just makes something up. Fiction passed as truth would have seemed bad in the eighties but would hardly raise an eyebrow now. I don’t want to portray journalism as bad. It’s more important than ever. I’m sure we all miss the outrage over manufactured truth.
Reeve’s story is the talk of the town, because it was the eighties and people read things. Trouble begins when Reeve is questioned about his source and just how this Harvard-educated fella could have been given so much access? Worse still is that the phony story hews awfully close that of a real pimp played by Freeman. The local district attorney believes Reeve wrote about Freeman, while Freeman’s defense attorney senses an opportunity to have the case muddled enough to result in acquittal.
This movie has the ingredients of a zany comedy, where aw shucks, this is all just one goofy mix up. “Street Smart” is better, and quite serious. Reeve becomes more successful, landing a regular television spot where he provides a safe, voyeuristic view into small crimes like graffiti and taxi fraud. Taxis. Remember those? Reeve starts to lose his sense of self and falls further into both his lie and the world it steals from.
The genius of the movie is that Freeman quickly senses and capitalizes on Reeve’s naivete. The two meet, and it’s not long before Freeman shows what his world is really like. Violent, unforgiving, predatory. The movie does a good job of illustrating the kind of tourism the privileged can engage in with regard to the poor and minorities. Freeman knows this, and uses it to his advantage. The movie makes the point explicit, but not in a hyperbolic way. Why is Reeve picking on the poor?
“Street Smart” was Freeman’s breakout role, earning him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Freeman provides his villain with dignity of sorts, fluctuating between harsh violence and a type of paternalism for those he controls. We’re shown a human with both mercy and uncertainty, instead of cartoonish fantasy that patronizes the viewer.
The movie is effective social commentary that is more relevant today than it was in the eighties. Everyone including Reeve seems corrupt. Truth only matters when there’s not profit to worry about. The district attorney, Reeve’s long-suffering girlfriend, and a prostitute Reeve befriends are not corrupt and show how vulnerable the good can be in a terrible world. The movie is quite strong here and makes me wonder why more haven’t seen it.
I’m reminded of the 2001 movie that everyone has seen: “Training Day”. If you liked “Training Day” there’s something wrong with you, or you haven’t seen far superior movies like “Street Smart”. Denzel Washington is amazing in “Training Day” but the movie is quite poorly strung together. The borrowed premise is similar. A privileged, white outsider doesn’t belong in the world he finds himself in while showing the audience that this underworld is filled with real human beings trying to survive.
“Street Smart” is quite a good movie that misses its chance to be a great. Despite all the careful commentary and willingness to show the brutality of life, we get a far more typical Hollywood ending. In one sense the ending shows us what typically happens to those with fewer means. Reeve isn’t a hero and great movie would have haunted us with that.
$Id: review_street_smart 569 2020-07-26 14:26:01Z x $