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  • The Ethics of Violence:Representing Inner-City Communities and the Case of Boaz Yakin's Fresh
  • Tom O'Connor (bio)

Boaz Yakin's Fresh (1994) is a profoundly disturbing film that foregrounds the cycles of violence, drug addiction, and family/community instability that are devastating America's urban poor. I use the film in composition and cultural studies classes not only to analyze the mainstream media's depictions of the American inner city but also to explore the ways that writing about unsettling [End Page 408] and painful issues can develop our rhetorical abilities as writers. Yakin's film, because it exposes the harsh reality of the American inner city, demonstrates a "contact zone" according to Mary Louise Pratt's (1991) terminology. For Pratt, contact zones are "those social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power" (34). However, these "zones" do not exist solely between cultures, but within any number of competing worldviews, forms of rhetoric, or modes of knowledge and even experience. Since the American inner city is not only the space where many cultures intersect but also where the true horrors of class deprivations become exposed, it showcases the problematic roles that American mythologies like the unconditional individual play in our cultural values and narratives.

As I argue here, Yakin's film edifies the fact that the "contact zone" is a profound entryway into the social construction of meaning. Because writers and artists have used many different genres to illuminate the problems in the American inner city, I encourage students to supplement their own interpretations of Yakin's film with specific examples of critical writing on class (such as Benjamin DeMott's The Imperial Middle Way: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Class [1990]), sociological studies and concepts (such as Melvin Lerner's "just world phenomenon"), rap lyrics (Juelz Santana's Lil' Boy Fresh, Mos Def 's Dollar Day, and Talib Kweli's Drugs, Basketball, and Rap), popular films and TV shows (The Wire and Precious), as well as memoirs (Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land [1999] and Geoffrey Canada's Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun [1995]). These examples help students to frame their arguments in a more sophisticated as well as grounded manner. Below, I look at the "contact zones" that my students and I have typically utilized in order to enrich not only our interpretations of Fresh but also the role that class plays in all of our lives.

Student Responses

Due to its richly textured, complex narrative, a cursory outline of Fresh will help to foreground the pedagogical issues that arise when discussing or writing about it. Yakin's film depicts the struggles of a twelve-year-old African-American boy named Michael, aka Fresh (Sean Nelson), who hopes to save himself and his sister from the violence that saturates his poor Brooklyn neighborhood. Fresh has chosen to be a drug runner for several major dealers in his community because this is the only way that he can save up enough money to escape his surroundings. Fresh, in fact, has nothing but contempt for the drug dealers because they are responsible for destroying his community. [End Page 409] His older sister Nichole is a heroin addict and is basically used as a sexual object by her dealers; in one pivotal scene, the young girl that Fresh has a crush on, Rosie (Natima Bradley), is killed by a stray bullet, which registers for him the fact that nothing can be safely nurtured in his environment. Compounding all this, Fresh's mother is absent, and his father, Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), plays a rather ambiguous role in his life since he's an emotionally cut-off ex-drug addict and current alcoholic. Most important, however, Sam never offers Fresh the illusion that he will save his son, and Fresh comes to realize that he must act alone if he hopes to escape his surroundings.

The fact that a twelve-year-old must free himself from his destructive environment is undoubtedly a key aspect of the film's social criticism. Yakin's film highlights the lack of concern that social organizations typically have for...


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pp. 408-416
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