Far superior to John Singleton’s by-the-numbers Boyz n the Hood (1991), Boaz Yakin’s Fresh doesn’t rely on skeletal portrayals of life in the ghetto or preachy, moralistic messages. Rather, Fresh rides a compelling protagonist, outstanding script, and superb pacing to become 1994’s most underappreciated picture. It’s the story of Michael (A.K.A. Fresh), a 12-year-old drug-pusher who lives in a halfway house with his naive aunt and a slew of half-brothers & sisters. His father Sam (Samuel L. Jackson) remains in the picture, playing speed chess for money in the park, but lives in a decrepit trailer without any real life—Fresh is forced to sneak occasional visits to his table for games and fatherly metaphors & advice. Fresh’s quick wit and vast smarts earn him the trust of multiple druglords, including the powerful Esteban, and allow him to accumulate a large, illegal savings account. After a while, however, a series of circumstances cause Fresh to reevaluate his criminal path, leaving him determined to do his part in changing the seemingly predestined fates of so many inner-city youths.
Sean Nelson’s astonishing performance as Fresh stings of authenticity, primarily because there’s no hammy mannerisms. Fresh comes across as a genuine urban kid, forced by the impoverished conditions of Brooklyn to become a full-fledged grown-up far before his time. He routinely witnesses robbery, treachery, and cold-blooded murder, eventually becoming almost steeled to the brutal, nonstop sadism—a particularly unnerving moment features Fresh and his punkish sidekick Chuckie putting a stray, wounded dog out of its misery with a single gunshot. Only his relationship with his sister (a key element to Fresh’s development), and his meetings with his father—who’s unaware of Fresh’ extracurricular activities, but has his own troubled past—relieve his business-like existence of its heavy burden. The film’s final sequence, which features Fresh the man—for perhaps the first time, after a life of unwarranted responsibility—becoming Michael the child, should move the most stoic of viewers. I find it to be one of the most appropriate and powerful finales of the decade.
Unlike the usual trite interpretation of the game, chess in Fresh does not symbolize black vs. white so much as power and respect power—and the cost of achieving success at any price. One of Fresh’s most impressive characteristics is the immense texture of every dramatic scene—when local ruffian and fellow dealer Jake kills a young basketball player who had just schooled him on the court, Yakin smoothly makes it clear that the boy hadn’t done anything to provoke the attack. He was simply playing his game, and actually goes out of his way to avoid causing trouble, at one point saying, “don’t worry about it, man, it’s their ball.” The message is clear: bloodshed is the only *solution* that these thugs know, the only way for them to feel on top of the world. That a young girl whom Fresh clearly has feelings for is caught in the crossfire only enhances the scene’s power—Yakin doesn’t milk her death for tearjerking purposes; instead he gracefully cuts to the police station, where Fresh glumly states that he didn’t see anything. It’s a full-fledged lie, yet doesn’t feel dishonest—in his bleak universe, Fresh has no choice but to roll with the punches, as painful as they may be. It’s not until the sins pile up to unbearable proportions that Fresh uses his numerous intellectual gifts—the very gifts that established him as a cornerstone pusher—to rip the drug empire apart, before the emotional load of his life collapses, leading to the aforementioned wrenching final moment.