Produced under Showtime's "Original Picture for All Ages" programming umbrella, "Our America" is a fact-based drama that's ambitious and fairly hard-hitting by broadcast kidpic standards.

Produced under Showtime’s “Original Picture for All Ages” programming umbrella, “Our America” is a fact-based drama that’s ambitious and fairly hard-hitting by broadcast kidpic standards. Adults, however, will likely find its good intentions mitigated by awkward structuring and somewhat stilted execution, particularly as compared to other recent portraits of African-American ghetto life from the youth perspective. Feature is slotted for a summer debut on the cable net.

Gordon Rayfield’s teleplay is based on the Peabody-winning book of the same title by real-life protags. LeAlan Jones (played by Roderick Pannell) and Lloyd Newman (Brandon Hammond) were Chicago teens living in and around the city’s notorious Southside Ida B. Wells Housing Project when NPR producer David Isay (Josh Charles) hired them to create an audio diary of their everyday existence –broken family backgrounds, surrounding gang violence and all the rest. Edited into the “Ghetto Life 101″ radio series, the results won acclaim and several prizes.

But the team’s warts-and-all chronicle rubbed some community leaders the wrong way (especially Vanessa Williams as a humorless high school principal). Isay was accused of manipulating his novice reporters into confirming negative stereotypes. Nonetheless, he continued to play a mentoring role in their lives. A year later, when two pre-adolescents’ dropping (perhaps accidentally) a 5-year-old from a 14th-story window brought further hostile attention to the neighborhood, Jones and Newman again took up their tape recorders to investigate the deeper stories behind those headlines.

Script uneasily lurches between various central threads: the lead kids’ struggles against dysfunctional home, school and street environments; their eventual, mixed-reward local celebrity; white producer Isay’s beyond-the-call-of-duty paternal investment; and lastly the case of the 5-y.o.’s shocking death, which unfortunately comes off as a bit of a tagged-on suspense hook here.

Vet helmer Ernest Dickerson uses occasional B&W and hand-held camerawork to suggest docu-realism. But uneven supporting perfs, the wavering thematic focus and a sometimes bluntly educational tenor in both screenplay and direction make that effort often unconvincing. Nonetheless, some powerful moments come through, and younger auds should find considerable food for thought here.

Tech aspects are OK; Patrice Rushen’s score is a tad more mawkishly conventional than material needs.

Our America

Production

A Showtime and Paramount Pictures presentation. Produced by Eda Godel Hallinan. Executive producers, Joseph Stern, Angela Bassett. Directed by Ernest Dickerson. Screenplay, Gordon Rayfield, based on the book "Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of America" by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman with David Isay.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Dickerson; editor, Stephen Lovejoy; music, Patrice Rushen; production designer, Doug McCullough; art director, Marion Pon; set decorator, Garth Brunt; costume designer, Resa McConaghy; sound, Bill MacMillan; assistant director, Laurie Mirsky; casting, Jaki Brown-Karman, Helen Mossler. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 13, 2002. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

David Isay - Josh Charles
Sandra Williams - Vanessa Williams
LeAlan Jones - Roderick Pannell
Lloyd Newman - Brandon Hammond
Graham Ellis - Mykelti Williamson
Gary Covino - Peter Paige
June Jones - Irma P. Hall
With: Serena Lee, Djanet Sears, Gene Mack, Ruyika Bernard, Justin Mitchell, Mark Taylor, Daniel Farris.
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