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At the Movies: ‘Foreign Student’

July 28, 1994 GMT

Undated (AP) _ The year is 1956, when the Civil Rights Movement that would startle the nation a decade later was planting firm but delicate roots with the Montgomery, Ala., boycott and the nonviolent protests of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the South, and in parts of the North as well, blacks and whites had little social interaction.

Into this milieu steps Phillippe Le Clerc (Marco Hofschneider), a bright- eyed and eager French student whose dream has been to study in America. He wins a semester’s scholarship to Asheland-Stuart University, a small college in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

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His life is forever changed during those few months by a chance encounter with a beautiful woman named April (Robin Givens). They are attracted to one another on just about every level - intellectually, physically, spiritually, culturally.

There’s only one problem: Phillippe is white, and April is black.

At its very heart, Eva Sereny’s ″Foreign Student″ is a tender and steamy love story. It’s also a remembrance, based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Philippe Labro, and a social commentary on a vexing time in American history.

The movie opens in France, as Phillippe receives his letter of acceptance from Asheland-Stuart, and quickly segues to a train ride through the glorious Shenandoah.

Phillippe arrives on campus and almost immediately tries out for the football team (he’s a soccer star), and is befriended by star quarterback Cal (Rick Johnson), who gives the foreigner advice about sex:

″White whores don’t exist and black whores are off-limits,″ he says.

Phillippe’s interest in American writers makes him a regular at the home of Professor Rex Jennings (Jack Coleman). It is there that he meets the Jennings’ cleaning woman, April, a schoolteacher who wants to supplement her income by doing housework.

It starts with a sultry exchange of glances, prompting April to immediately tell him he’s not American, because, she says, ″White boys can’t look Negro girls in the eye.″

Phillippe immediately falls in love. April, though, is more cautious.

He must find her, must see her. So he talks Cal into driving him to the black part of town. And here the filmmakers slip into some highly objectionable and unfortunate stereotypes - knife-wielding black thugs, black women who either are fat and sloppy or sexual tigresses, and the black section depicted as a horrific shantytown.

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Which brings us back to April. It’s hard to imagine that a young woman with her vision, intellect, beauty and ambition would remain in so backward a community doing housework. Even in 1956, black women such as April migrated elsewhere to pursue their dreams.

But the filmmakers don’t give us very much to go on for either character. Nothing is shown of April’s private life or home life, and Phillippe seems to come straight out of Central Casting. What was his life like in France? Who is he?

You’ll never know from this movie.

Phillippe and April finally come together for a steamy and touching love affair. He wants to marry her and take her back to Paris. Despite her love for him, April is unable to free herself from a century of racial hate and segregation and accept his proposal.

The semester ends on a bittersweet note.

Givens and Hofschneider are wonderful together. There’s a sweet gentleness in their interaction, and their love scenes are electric.

There’s also a good supporting cast: the imposing Charles S. Dutton as bluesman Howlin’ Wolf and Hinton Battle doing a turn as Sonny Boy Williamson; Edward Herrmann as a CIA agent teaching at the school; Charlotte Ross as the troubled wannabe Southern belle Sue Ann; and Johnson’s BMOC Cal.

Sereny, who made the short ″The Dress″ and numerous commercials, makes her feature directorial debut with ″Foreign Student.″ She worked from a script by Menno Meyjes (″The Color Purple″).

The Gramercy Pictures release was produced by Tarak Ben Ammar and Mark Lombardo. Meyjes co-produced. The movie is rated R for partial nudity and adult situations.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.