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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

Pras on 'Skid Row'
By Esther Editor and Film Critic
Aug 31, 2007, 10:18

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A seedy, sprawling section of downtown Los Angeles, which is home to an estimated 11,000 homeless people, is the subject of “Skid Row,” a revealing new documentary that explores a world poverty, hunger, drug addiction and mental illness in the nation’s second largest city.

Our guide through these mean streets is Pras Michel of the Fugees, who, with his hooded jacket and knit cap pulled down over one eye, seems to easily blend into Skid Row, where 41 percent of the residents are Black. Of this 41 percent, most are Black men, even though those categorizing themselves as Black make up only 9 percent of the population of Los Angeles County.

This approach by the filmmakers, Ross Clarke, Niva Dorell and Marshal Tyler, of filtering our experience through the eyes and experiences of a celebrity, has some mixed results but does allow the narrative to move along and, to a large extent, avoid cliché. Seeing this world mainly through the eyes and ears of Pras and his supposedly hidden film crew does limit our exposure to the scope and boundaries of Skid Row, and its varied landscape of tent cities, shelters, missions and social service centers. It is also odd that, given the racial make up of the area, that there is no Black woman--not a mother, sister, wife or friend—interviewed on camera for this production.

The viewer is also reminded at various junctures that Pras isn’t really from or on these streets like those he befriends. During his first few hours in the hood, he decides that he can’t eat the food served by the neighborhood mission (but we are never sure why exactly), which serves 70,000 meals each day. Instead, he decides to try a hustle, in his case, panhandling, which nets him $15. He then takes his earnings, goes into a sit-down restaurant and spends it all on one meal. At another juncture, he has to make a phone call to his agent and, stripped of his cell phone and Blackberry, negotiates a stone-age pay phone on the street.

Even though he lives for nine days on the streets as one of the homeless—he sleeps in a tent and is horrified by screams and the scurry of rats in the night—we recognize him as an entertainer who has, to a limited extent, worked as an actor. So we may not always know when Pras is being totally real with us or is acting in a role. While he panhandles, he learns that he gets the best results by flashing a smile and dancing a few steps. Another scene, when he ducks beside a fence to take a crap, seems like it could be for effect but maybe not. Like maybe he could have found some type of public restroom. But who knows?

Even with such problematic aspects, this effort by Pras is worthwhile. It may not be a comprehensive journey into Skid Row but it is a journey that many may not take without a famous person to lead the way.

This review also appeared on Please support us by ordering Esther Iverem's We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007)at or at your favorite bookstore. Thanks!

© Copyright 2006

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