[26 June 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Memory warfare pits us against the forces of cultural, racial, and class amnesia. And it protects us from Aframesia, a paralyzing form of black forgetfulness of our beleaguered brothers and sisters. We must embrace the sometimes painful but ultimately healing remembrance that makes us human and wise.
—Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water
“Save our streets! Save our streets!” So pronounce the earnest demonstrators who appear at the start of Waist Deep, their placards raised high, their faces showing frustration. The city of Los Angeles, including the name-checked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has let them down, and they’re demanding redress—education, security, freedom from everyday terrors.
The demonstrations show up, at first, on one of many monitors watched by department store security guard Otis, also known as O2 (Tyrese Gibson), so named because back in the day, he used to “set it off” and then “vanish like air.” Currently, he’s less mobile, a single father just out of prison, determined to set a good example for his young son Otis Junior (H. Hunter Hall). Following the model of old school B-movies, the inscrutably titled Waist Deep makes its socio-political points under guise of big, simple-seeming action. In this case, that action is especially boomy and bloody, as well as acrobatically filmed, but the idea is the same as in the olden days: the entertainment makes the point more palatable. Or maybe just that much easier to miss.
The dilemma set up for O2 is simple in the extreme: almost as soon as he picks up his beautiful boy from school, with apologies for being late gift in hand (a Buffalo Soldier on a horse, to add to Junior’s toy horse collection, meaning, “daddy cares” as well as “daddy’s politically aware”). As soon as he spots the scrape on Junior’s face. O2’s got questions, and is only partially satisfied by the answers, that Junior defended himself against a bully at school and “kicked his ass.” Dad smiles, proud, then frowns, worried. He’s got rules against the boy fighting, because, ““You gotta be better than me when you grow up.” That is, not an ex-con with two strikes against him, just waiting for the government to send him away forever.
And just like that, he’s facing exactly this possibility: as he’s caught in traffic, a carjacker jumps up and slams a gun to his head, hauling O2 from his driver’s seat and screeching off in his restored Chevy Impala, with Junior in the back seat. O2 takes off like a crazy man, waving the gun he’s taken from work, illegally, of course. O2 runs fast, shoots several helper thugs, but can’t catch the car. And so he’s left in the street, surrounded by scared witnesses, the camera swirling around him to indicate his complete bereftness. He wails, manfully: “Juuuuunior!”
And with that, O2 takes a look around and spots the girl who stopped him just before the carjacker popped up, chases her down an alley and slams her against a brick wall, giant gun to her temple. Coco (Meagan Good) is a street hustler, only she only sells stolen designer clothes for someone named P-Money, meaning, she’s not a prostitute, even though her boss sounds just like a pimp (he’s “gonna fucking kill” her for losing her “shit”). Within minutes, O2 has dragged her to a chop shop, saved her from the bully who runs it (“What the fuck is wrong with you, putting your hands on a woman?”), and convinced her to “help” him.
So what is she’s not in fact so helpful on the intel he thinks she’ll have? O2 gets what he needs from his no-count cousin Luck (Larenz Tate, who needs a real part, please). Never mind that Lucky was supposed to pick up Junior from school and he’s home instead smoking dope and watching tv, and, by the way, as O2 puts it, “Every time I asked you to do something, you dropped the ball.” Lucky is family, which makes his repeated drug-addled screw-ups forgivable, and oh yes, sets up for trouble and betrayal later on.
Lucky does report who’s got the boy, O2’s old partner in crime, namely, Big Meat (played by the Game with an ugly prosthetic scar over his eye). As befits his name, Big Meat is introduced in his drug factory (workers in cages, watched over by men with guns and dogs: Nino Brown would love it), where he’s torturing an associate who’s done wrong. That is, Big Meat is chopping off his arm with a machete, then demonstrating he’s got jokes, too: “Bring me my money, you’ll get your arm back, and if you hurry, you might be able to sew this motherfucker back on.” Ornery and brutal, Big Meat says he’ll give back the kid if O2 comes up with $100,000 in 24 hours. You don’t believe it for a second.
The rest of the movie follows O2’s efforts to get his hands on said sum, as he and his feisty instant-girlfriend go on a bank robbing spree, only to be labeled by the media (tv and tabs), “a modern day Bonnie and Clyde” (a whiteboy gas station clerk is so impressed he asks for Coco’s autograph). Their brief celebrity, as well as their night of hiding out in a rich guy’s house in the Hills, gives the couple a chance at the requisite ridiculous sex scene (here it’s O2 who solemnly demurs, “I can’t right now,” and when she persists with a second kiss, oh well, he just gives up).
While the plot is overtly absurd (nearly every scene leads to a shoot-out, beating, or car chase), the film never lets up on those “Save Our Streets” demonstrations. One march provides O2 and Coco cover as they exit from their first bank job, but more frequently, they serve as commentary via background tv and radio, including an early observation by Michael Eric Dyson (audible on O2’s car radio) concerning the need to “organize our dissent against this animal, this beast,” meaning the drug trade and related violence, but also, clearly, having to do with the abandonment of an entire underclass generation by “their” government. That O2 becomes part of this problem—even if his mayhem is extremely directed—makes Waist Deep symptomatic. A film aimed at a certain demographic (let’s call it “urban,” with the understanding that the euphemism is inaccurate and racist in practice if not intent) must provide particular, formulaic thrills, not least being Tyrese driving fast and showing his spectacular pecs.
But what lies beneath this marketing presumption is a set of ideological and political questions. What are the options when vicious criminals run commerce and social organization in your neighborhood? How to deal with police officers perceived as and behaving like enemies? And how can anyone imagine his way out of such dire circumstances without some corny beach fantasy articulated by a girl who looks like Meagan Good? There has to be another way.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/waist-deep-2006/