TOUGH tells the tale of the troubled childhood of Johnny Banks, the strained relations with his parents and with his white teacher, Mr. Bishop, and his steady slide into delinquency which can only lead to a prison cell. Johnny lives in a mixed neighbourhood of Los Angeles with his mother, an out-of-work actress, and his stepfather. While his mother grown cold towards a son she can’t understand, she’s also in constant conflict with her partner. One day, Johnny walks in on his mom in another man’s arms, and a white man on top of it. Tensions rise and Johnny rebels against all forms of authority. Wounded by the degradation of his environment, the intransigence of his teacher, the violent fights at home and rejection by him mother, teenaged Johnny tears himself away — and into the insidious mechanics of a life of crime. He smokes, lies, steals, skips class and goes so far as to club an old man for the money in his pockets…
Horace Jackson’s first feature film transposes François Truffaut’s LES 400 COUPS into the setting of black cinema. Like Truffaut, Jackson presents adolescence not through the lens of nostalgia, but rather as an ordeal to be overcome. And like Antoine Doinel, Johnny Banks confronts a world of uncomprehending adults. He’s not a bad kid, he’s a young man denied a safe and sound structure in his life. The film offers remarkable scenes, like Johnny’s flight from the police after shoplifting, or the totally unexpected conclusion. Other memorable moments include two black teen girls teaching a white sex predator a lesson in a public bathroom, or Johnny’s efforts to save the life of his best friend who is threatened with hanging. Working with visibly modest means, Horace Jackson delivers an intimate film as sensitive as it is rough. The numerous awkward slips only accentuate the sordidness of the setting and invest a particular naturalism to the proceedings. Released ahead of the blaxploitation wave, TOUGH is a neo-realist film, concerned with the social circumstances of its protagonist. Never released on DVD, we’re proud to present a rare 35mm print!
— Marc Lamothe