directed by Boaz Yakin
(Miramax, 1994)

Fresh is a 12-year-old African-American kid with an abundance of street smarts and a stash of several thousand dollars squirrelled away in an old tin can under the floorboards of a condemned tenement. He's a consummate wheeler-dealer, a drug runner who lives his life on the gritty streets of ghetto Brooklyn. He lives fast and hard and, at the rate he's going, he'll be lucky to see his 13th birthday.

Fresh's real name is Michael, and he lives with his Aunt Frances, a self-abnegating caretaker of 11 of Fresh's cousins, who have found with Aunt Frances the first stable home of their lives and don't appreciate Fresh's activities risking their stability. They're scared to be seen on the streets with him. "I'm not going back to no group home because of you," one of his cousins hisses. "If you mess this up, I'm gonna kill you."

Fresh lives in a world of violence, depravity and despair that no child should ever have to witness. He sits by the bank of the East River and dreams of better things. He looks across the river at the towers of midtown Manhattan, a short subway ride away and as distant and inaccessible to him as the far side of the moon. His world is drugs, which keep him in funds at the same time they are destroying the life of his teenage sister, a hard-core junkie prostitute with the face of a black Madonna. His only parent is his dad, a veteran speed-chess player who has taught Fresh everything he knows about the game. "Your queen is nothing but a pawn with fancy moves," he advises Fresh. "Play your opponent, not the game -- if your opponent plays a defensive game, be aggressive." And vice-versa. Chess is, after all, a metaphor for life, and the name of the game is survival.

Fresh is surviving as best he can. He's a drug runner for two different groups; he runs heroin for Esteban's Latino crew and crack for Corky's African-American gang. He's smart, savvy and, above all, he knows how to keep his mouth shut -- something his best friend, Chuckie, has never learned and which will eventually end up costing him, big time.

Survival in Fresh's world is a dicey prospect, and when one of Corky's lieutenants, a thug named Jake, shoots up the playground after being humiliated in a game of pickup basketball by a much younger player -- killing not only his opponent but a little girl Fresh has a crush on -- something in Fresh snaps. He's had it with all the drugs and mayhem that make up his world. Dad's lessons in speed chess stand him in good stead. Fresh sets up a chessboard in his room, each piece representing a player in his world, and with cold, analytical calculation and breathtaking audacity, he plays both ends against the middle, setting the drug gangs against each other and sitting back to watch them wipe each other out.

Boaz Yakin's first feature film is a tour de force that showcases not only himself as a gifted director, but a dazzlingly talented actor in Sean Nelson. Nelson doesn't so much play Fresh as become him. He's such a natural that he doesn't seem to be acting at all. Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as Fresh's dad, a failed person and parent who has managed to give Fresh the one gift he has, a talent for speed chess that helps him transform his life. Giancarlo Esposito is suitably reassuring and menacing by turns as the heroin dealer Esteban, and Ron Brice is chilling as the paranoid crack dealer Corky. Yakin's direction brings out all the grit, despair and hopelessness of the environment these people are trapped in, either by choice (Corky and Esteban) or involuntarily (Fresh and his sister). We can only wonder what it must be like to live in such a place, with no way out.

Fresh suffered from abominable distribution when it was first released in 1994, which prevented it from being much better known. I hadn't even heard of this film until I caught it on cable TV one night a few months ago. Since then I've seen it four times, and each time I come away awed at how Yakin has caught to perfection the lives of his characters and the mean streets they live in. And the final scene, Fresh staring at his dad over one more game of speed chess with tears running down his face, is like a visceral kick. Consummate wheeler-dealer or not, this kid is, after all, only 12 years old.

by Judy Lind
28 January 2006

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