N.W.A.’s landmark 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton launched the gangsta rap genre, served as a springboard for the group members’ assorted solo careers, and infuriated authority figures and conservative cultural pundits along the way. This week, these hip-hop legends get the biopic treatment with Straight Outta Compton the movie, and to celebrate, we decided to dedicate this week’s feature to a look at some of Hollywood’s best efforts to interpret, analyze, and honor a culture that’s all too often misappropriated and misunderstood. Get ready to rock it to the bang bang boogie, because it’s time for Total Recall!
There’s no shortage of movies about best pals who wake up to their love connection long after the audience has realized they’re perfect for each other, but director Rick Famuyiwa’s 2002 romantic dramedy Brown Sugar adds a fresh twist by making the protagonists (played by Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan) grown-up hip-hop kids who met during the genre’s formative era and have found successful careers in the music industry. Sugar further cements its hip-hop bona fides with supporting performances from real-life rappers Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Queen Latifah, as well as an appearance from influential MC Kool G. Rap — all of whom contribute to the ample charms that help the movie transcend the rom-com conventions of its plot. “A romantic comedy, yes,” admitted Roger Ebert, “but one with characters who think and talk about their goals, and are working on hard decisions.”
Near the peak of Chappelle’s Show mania, Dave Chappelle used some of his newfound Hollywood clout to throw the greatest block party in history — and have director Michel Gondry film the whole thing, turning it into a cinematic love letter to live music and hip-hop’s deep New York roots. Interspersed with new stand-up material from its star, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party treats viewers to one incredible concert, featuring sets from Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, the Roots, Cody ChesnuTT, and Big Daddy Kane — plus the reunited Fugees — all filmed with a fan’s loving eye. Calling it “a concert film for people who don’t like concert films,” FilmFocus’ Joe Utichi said the result “does such a good job of putting you in the middle of the action that only the end credits can remind you that you’re sitting in a movie theatre.”
With 2002’s 8 Mile, Eminem joined the relatively short list of celebrities who have starred in their own biopic — and unlike most of his predecessors, he managed to come out of the experience with a critical and commercial hit. Of course, it definitely helped that the multi-platinum MC had led a fairly cinematic life, rising from humble beginnings as a bullied and impoverished Detroit youth before rocketing to fame with a rapid-fire rhyming style and deeply confessional, confrontational lyrics — and 8 Mile’s big-screen success also wasn’t hurt by the fact that it played fast and loose with his story, changing the “character” names and adding various narrative nips and tucks to make the whole thing hit harder on the big screen. “Since his ascension to pop-culture royalty, Eminem has transformed the messy emotions of his life into musical black comedy,” wrote Nathan Rabin for the AV Club. “In 8 Mile, that life becomes an equally riveting drama.”
In terms of storyline and structure, House Party may be little more than an updated version of the cheapo ‘50s rock flicks that tried to use the music as a Pavlovian bell to send screaming teens rushing to the cineplex, but whatever it might lack in sophistication, this cheerfully amiable 1990 hit more than compensates with its sheer exuberance, a killer soundtrack, and a pair of immensely charming stars. Led by hip-hop duo Kid ‘N Play, House Party tosses up the bare remnants of a plot (which is basically summed up in the title) and then colorfully decorates the joint with standout performances — including appearances from Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, and Tisha Campbell — held together by Reginald Hudlin’s assured direction. The result, noted Desson Thomson for the Washington Post, is “fast-moving, never dull, extremely funny, and manages to touch, with lighthearted (and R-rated) profundity on almost every youthful issue you can imagine, including police harassment, teenage sex, the all-too-easy road to jail and alcohol drinking.”
Plenty of rappers have boasted on wax about growing up on the streets and rising out of a life of crime. In Craig Brewer’s Oscar-winning Hustle & Flow, those dire straits are depicted as something to escape rather than romanticize: Terrence Howard plays a small-time crook named Djay who, tired of pimping and dealing, decides it’s time to make a play for hip-hop stardom — only to discover that leaving your old life behind isn’t always as easy as putting together a dope demo. “Hustle & Flow suspends you in its spell of mood, of feeling, of climate,” wrote Stephanie Zacharek for Salon. “It’s a pop picture that finds its richness in peeling down to the essentials of good storytelling.”
While rock fans have been spoiled over the years by a growing list of documentaries devoted to the genre’s classic albums, hip-hop’s greatest hits have been given relatively short shrift. Time Is Illmatic, a 2014 documentary assembled in honor of the 20th anniversary of Nas’ classic debut LP Illmatic, offers an absorbing example of the many fascinating tales waiting to be told by directors willing to look to rap’s past for inspiration. Helmed by first-time filmmaker One9, Time Is Illmatic offers an overview of Nas’ upbringing and early life, leading to him signing his first record deal at the tender age of 20 and releasing his watershed album just a year later, then surveys Illmatic’s impact and legacy over the ensuing decades. As Kyle Anderson argued for Entertainment Weekly, “As both an origin story about a great artist and a distillation of ’80s urban blight, it’s as breathless and real as any street-corner rhyme.”
For many people, breakdancing was little more than a short-lived fad that died out in the early ‘80s, but director Benson Lee proved the opposite with his critically lauded 2007 documentary Planet B-Boy. In fact, as Lee shows here, the dance not only persisted beyond its time in the ‘80s zeitgeist, it’s flourished throughout the world; to prove it, Planet follows young breakdancers from Germany, Japan, South Korea, France, and the United States as they train to compete for top honors in the Battle of the Year. Those of us who remember how much fun it was to watch popping and locking in the schoolyard and on MTV will not be surprised by the words of the Houston Chronicle’s Amy Biancolli, who wrote, “If I could, I would spin on my head to express how much I enjoyed Planet B-Boy.”
It’s the MC we tend to hear loudest (and whose talents tend to receive the widest recognition), but there’s nothing quite as incredible as a talented turntablist, and some of hip-hop’s most brilliant DJs finally got their cinematic due in Hype! director Doug Pray’s 2002 documentary Scratch, which takes an incisive and insightful look at the elevation of the art form from early pioneers like Afrika Bambaata on up through latter-day leaders like DJ Shadow and DJ Qbert. As with any great documentary, Scratch transcends its subject; in the words of the Capital Times’ Rob Thomas, “Those moviegoers who would automatically bypass a hip-hop documentary should give Scratch a second look.”
For the rap novice looking for a primer course in the development of the art form, Something for Nothing is essential viewing — but even for those who’ve loved hip-hop for years, the movie offers an engrossing look at some of the key artists who helped shape the genre during its formative era, with co-director Ice-T arranging an assortment of legendary MCs and younger rising stars (including Afrika Bambaataa, Big Daddy Kane, Eminem, and Kanye West) to tell their stories while opening a window into their craft. “The interviews are often revealing and funny,” noted an approving Michael Phillips for the Chicago Tribune. “And much of the music is tremendous.”
Hip-hop would go on to inspire plenty of films with bigger budgets, wider releases, and more ambitious stories, but they all owe a partial debt to Wild Style. Produced, written, and directed by multi-hyphenate artist Charlie Ahearn, Style takes a docudrama approach to hip-hop in early ‘80s New York, featuring many of the era’s top acts (including Fab 5 Freddy, who helped work on the script, as well as Grandmaster Flash and the Rock Steady Crew) playing themselves as part of a story about a graffiti artist named Zoro (Lee Quiñones) and his relationship with a journalist (Patti Astor). Like quite a few of the entries on this list, Wild Style boasts a killer soundtrack, but it’s also one of the more critically respected examples of hip-hop cinema, capturing a crucial moment in time with its loosely scripted approach and low-budget aesthetic. “Hip-hop rolls on tractor treads now, unafraid to colonize those who hesitate,” noted Sasha Frere-Jones for the Village Voice, “but in 1982 it was small, self-selecting, and as specific to New York as the World Trade Center.”
Finally, here’s ’80s hip-hop hitmakers the Fat Boys covering the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” from the soundtrack to their 1987 comedy Disorderlies:
Nas: Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about the making of one of hip hop’s greatest albums, is at 100 percent.
Last Hijack, a documentary about the life of a Somali pirate, is at 100 percent.
The Blue Room, a thriller about a man whose adulterous affairs lead to serious trouble, is at 90 percent.
For Those In Peril, a drama about a man who survives a mysterious fishing boat accident off the coast of Scotland, is at 89 percent.
The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon in a drama about a group of Sudanese refugees who attempt to make new lives for themselves in the United States, is at 85 percent (check out our interview with the cast here).
Copenhagen, a drama about a man who befriends a teenage girl while searching for his grandfather in Denmark, is at 83 percent.
The Decent One, a documentary about how Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler thought about his actions, is at 50 percent.
Inner Demons, a horror film about reality show subject who appears to be a drug addict but may be suffering from something even scarier, is at 40 percent.
The Liberator, a biopic of Simón Bolívar and his fight for Latin American independence from Spain, is at 27 percent.