STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON And The Celebration Of Hip-Hop In Film
Hip-hop music has long since proven to be an incredibly effective medium for providing a voice to the voiceless. The daily struggles of African-Americans, which society at large had been oblivious to and ignorant of, was injected into the mainstream consciousness via the widespread proliferation of hip-hop. These messages have been part of the music since its earliest days in songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It continued with the explosively groundbreaking impact of Gangsta Rap and groups like N.W.A. in the ‘90s, and lives on with contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar, whose street authenticity and pop crossover appeal reflect modern sensibilities. Film has also been intrinsic to hip-hop, as movies about the culture spread the message concurrently with the music. From the earliest films like 1982's Wild Style, to the smash hit Boyz N' the Hood, to dramas like 8 Mile, the movies reflect various aspects of the struggles expressed in rap lyrics.
Having said all that....this piece isn't actually about the significance of serious messages in hip-hop music and movies. Instead, I feel that it's important to emphasize the other aspect of hip-hop that is just as crucial: hip-hop is also about celebration. Though social commentary was part of its earliest forms, we must never forget that hip-hop was originally born as party music. I believe that the expression of jubilation is just as vital and critical to our culture as the expression of sorrow and anger. Music is part of how we coped with the great evils of slavery, and hip-hop was born in the despair of a city on the brink of annihilation from violence and poverty in the late 1970s, instilling a sense of hope in the face of hopelessness.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Queens during the ‘80sand ‘90s, I had my share of hard times, but I was equally blessed with many good times despite the hardships. The music I listened to and the movies I watched reflected both of those aspects. On one hand, the anger and sadness in those songs and films let me know that I was not alone in my struggles. However, the joy and wonder in other films let me know that I was more than just some disadvantaged statistic; they affirmed that I am a Human Being, a person with a soul and hopes and aspirations. And if people who looked like me and talked like me and came from where I came from were able to manifest expressions of that joy and make their dreams a reality, then I knew that I could too.
And so, rather than smack you with a boring laundry list of Important Black Hip-Hop Movies that you can find in any other stodgy film site run by white people, I'd like to share with you some hip-hop movies that promote the celebration of black culture and life in general. Most everyone is familiar with the modern classic comedy Friday, so this list contains some weirder and lesser known favorites of mine that I hope others will discover and enjoy.
House Party is the better-known Kid n' Play movie that is historically important for showing that, although it may occur in different places and through different methods, the teenage quest to party and get the girl is universal. Even so, I like Class Act better. Though it uses familiar black settings and language, the mistaken identity plot about a straight-laced nerd trading places with a hard core juvenile delinquent has a collective appeal, and the movie's freewheeling sense of slapstick comedy tickles my funny bone in just the right spot. In the end, each character grows by learning the importance of both aspects --the street smarts and the book smarts -- in their lives, and I've really taken that to heart.
You might have seen the Def Jam rap group The Fat Boys in the seminal hip-hop movie Krush Groove, but I've always been a fan of their comedy/headlining vehicle Disorderlies. They star as a trio of bumbling hospital orderlies hired to take care of a billionaire, while his no-good nephew seeks to facilitate his demise and claim his inheritance. Disorderlies is basically a black Three Stooges movie with beat-boxing thrown in, and I love it so.
Meteor Man stars the venerable director/producer Robert Townsend as Jefferson Reed, a mild-mannered school teacher whose D.C. neighborhood is plagued by the deadly gang known as the Golden Lords. One night while being chased by the gang, Reed is hit by a meteor from outer space that imbues him with super powers, and he soon takes up a costumed identity to clean up the streets. To this day, Meteor Man has the most personally resonant climax and thematic through-line of any superhero movie I've ever seen; more than any of the recent Marvel entries and more than anything in Nolan's trilogy, and it even puts a unique twist on the iconic superpowered street battle seen in Superman II. It's a universal morality tale of good vs. evil, but through the lens of hip-hop culture that speaks distinctly to the black community.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai stars Forest Whitaker as the Mafia hitman of the title who lives and fights by the Samurai code. Though not a jubilant comedy like the other entries listed here, it is still in the spirit of hip-hop celebration through film. Though I wasn't truly aware of it at the time, Ghost Dog was the first “art movie” I had ever seen, which was likely true for a great number of black people upon its release. Jim Jarmusch applied his esoteric style to a gritty crime drama, and breathed life into it with the magnificent hip-hop score/soundtrack by the renounced producer RZA of the legendary rap group The Wu-Tang Clan. It is a film like no other and an indelible part of hip-hop culture and history.
Who's the Man stars Ed Lover and Doctor Dré (no, not that one), who were morning radio DJs for the world-famous NYC hip-hop station HOT97 during the ‘90s. Here playing a pair of bumbling barbers, Lover and Dré reluctantly join the police force at the behest of their well-meaning boss, but when a local slum lord is implicated in a murder that rocks the community, they throw themselves into the case. Who's the Man is a super silly comedy that may be too stupid for some, but it has a lot of heart, which is big in my book. Though maybe not as poignantly relevant to the scourge of police brutality facing black people today, it does have a surprisingly decent commentary on gentrification and the class divide. Not to mention it might have the highest number of rapper cameos in a movie to date.
Although grim and gritty street crime dramas account for many of the most prevalent hip-hop films, it's important to recognize the wide variety of stories being told in the genre, stories that mainstream audiences wouldn't think even existed. As significant as those serious songs and movies have been in relaying the truth of our struggle, it is just as imperative that we have stories that relay the truth of our joy and humanity for all the world to see.
This was originally published in the August issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. See Straight Outta Compton at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!