News Column

San Francisco Chronicle Chip Johnson column

November 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 08--There are people who will view the new indie film "Licks" as a depiction of Oakland thug life and the latest installment in the continuing genre of contemporary urban gangster sagas.

It's laced with obscenity, the word "n-" seems to start and end every exchange between the characters, and women are treated like chattel.

There are the standard themes of conflict, hope and salvation, which may strike viewers as theatrical, but there's an unmistakable element of authenticity that rings true, and it is downright chilling.

The goal was to produce a movie that was a mirror reflection of real life, said first-time filmmaker Jonathan Singer-Vine, 25, a self-described "white guy from Berkeley" who relied on technical advisers from rough-cut neighborhoods in Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley to bring his vision to life.

It's also a red-flag warning to an entire generation of young black men existing -- not living -- on the ragged edges of American life. The story is set in Oakland, but it could be any one of dozens of U.S. cities.

It follows the lives of four teenage friends and focuses on main character Little D's struggle to maintain community ties while simultaneously searching for a way out of the criminal life after serving a two-year prison stint for a "lick" gone bad.

The film is polished but raw in its portraits, many of them drawn from real-life characters and scenarios that were not unfamiliar to cast and crew.

"We know those situations very closely," said Adrian Burrell, 23, a producer and technical adviser on the film who studies film at the San Francisco Art Institute.

"We have those associations and it strikes very close to home -- and to see it on the big screen is like being outside the fishbowl looking in. It becomes so much more clear, and that clarity makes it that much more horrible because it's something you've been a part of or something you've seen."

And that comes across in the film. There is no gratuitous violence, just the violence that is part of that lifestyle, and it's jarring. After the final cut was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival last March, Hollywood producers expressed interest -- but only if they could cut dialogue and add action. The creators declined.

The title, "Licks," is street slang for robbery, and the film shows crews taking part in everything from market holdups to follow-home robberies ("Big John is coming to dinner tonight, baby!") to beatings for disrespect. In one scene, while a crew sits in a living room hatching a plan to rob a Richmond massage parlor, a young girl no more than 7 or 8 years old asks, "Why do you always rob Asian people?"

"Licks" just lays it out there.

The film took 3 1/2 years to make on a shoestring budget of $120,000 and was edited on a laptop in a Berkeley studio apartment. The cast is made up of actors from Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, many of whom live in the neighborhoods where the movie was filmed.

"We picked our characters based on real-life situations and real life people," said Singer-Vine.

It was so real that a film shoot in West Oakland in 2012 almost went bad when some local residents recognized a cast member and threatened to shoot him.

The crew stashed the actor in a house until they could safely sneak him out of the neighborhood, Burrell said.

And less than two weeks after filming had ended, Burrell was nearly killed when two men tried to carjack him near the corner of International Boulevard and Santa Rita Avenue. They shot up the car and flattened the tires. Burrell, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, was grazed across the forehead by a bullet.

And like the movie itself, the incident wasn't pretty, or pumped up by special effects. It was what happens on the streets of Oakland almost every day.

Film is an artistic medium, and in art different people see different things.

For me, "Licks" doesn't glorify the criminal street life; it calls into question the social dysfunction that fosters such behavior.

The film opens in Oakland at the Parkway Theater on Nov. 29 for a weeklong run.

Chip Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. His columns run on Tuesday and Friday. E-mail: chjohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @chjohnson

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