Ex-con Socrates Fortlow (Lawrence Fishburne) moves to Los Angeles to seek anonymity, and uses his street skills and basic decency to effect good in his new neighborhood. Based on his book of short stories, Walter Mosley’s script almost literally sings under Michael Apted’s direction; acting and offscreen credits are also well above average.
Looking for work, Fortlow soon hooks up with Right Burke (Bill Cobbs), an old man who becomes his best friend. Within minutes of being turned down for a construction job — too old, he’s told — Fortlow helps defuse an ugly incident; remainder of two hours alternates among similar encounters, continuing efforts to find work and Fortlow’s soft-pedaled romantic pursuit by a local cafe owner (Natalie Cole). Along the way, Socrates becomes mentor to youngster Darryl (Daniel Williams).
Socrates has strong moral fiber, though his concept of justice doesn’t leave much room for courts or law enforcement. “You should never turn a black man over to the police,” he explains while dealing with a murderer. “It’d be better to kill him.”
In addition to strong characterizations by those mentioned, Cicely Tyson turns in a strong cameo as Cobbs’ character’s landlady; Bill Nunn and Bridgid Coulter are impressive as a philandering friend of Socrates and his wife, whose marriage is in trouble.
Only Laurie Metcalf and Alan Wilder, as managers of a Beverly Hills supermarket who are reluctant to hire Socrates, seem written and directed to be cartoonish. Their performances, if not the situation, might be regarded as comic relief.
Mosley’s script is quite episodic. One can assume which incidents were the individual short stories, though he does leave and return to some characters along the way. Film is narrated in voiceover by Cobbs’ character in a device with “Sunset Boulevard” overtones.
Whole picture has the look and feel of a feature — a very good, if not especially commercial, feature.