Playing at being homeless and destitute in a bid to see how the other half lives could be the worst kind of "look at me, I'm socially conscious" celebrity stunt, but rapper Pras Michel of The Fugees parlays it into a visually chaotic but often affecting documentary directed — "caught" is probably a better word for the film's murky hidden-camera footage — by Niva Dorell, Marshall Tyler and Ross Clarke.
Accompanied by their undercover crew, Pras spent nine days on Skid Row, a five-square-block area in downtown Los Angeles, that Eddie Estrada, director of La Mission — one of dozens of social-service entities serving the community — estimates houses some 11,000 people, many camped out on the streets. And though the crack epidemic in the mid-'80s is often blamed for the explosion of homelessness and dereliction in Los Angeles, the Midnight Mission opened on Skid Row in 1914. It's still there, and business is booming.
The film is perpetually on the verge of being the Pras show: Armed with his own tent, $9 and a bodyguard, he gets the hang of panhandling — smiling helps — and fails to absorb the notion that beggars can't be choosers: He won't eat at a soup kitchen and passes superior judgment on a nonvegetarian handout. He squabbles with the crew and bemoans the difficulty of quitting his BlackBerry and Razr habits cold turkey. But seven days later, there's an edge to Pras' prattle. No, he's still not genuinely alone, destitute and without recourse, but he's gotten a taste of being scorned and ignored and doesn't like it one tiny little bit. More importantly, he's ceded the spotlight to people who have walked the walk: homeless addict Krista, who describes herself as "the walking dead" and swears she'd embrace rehab if someone could help her get into a program; outreach workers Dianne Walker and Mike Rodriguez, recovering addicts working the same streets they once roamed; middle-aged Sonia, whose junkie son, Victor, has vanished into the lower depths; officer Deon Joseph, frustrated that all he can do is damage control; and Orlando Ward, who hauled himself off Skid Row and went to work for Midnight Mission. Their stories are the real thing. The intersection of poverty, addiction, abuse, homelessness and violence is old news, but if Pras' presence helps put a human face on it, well then, more power to him and to the prAsperity project, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide direct funding to community groups.
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