In active existence for just five years and with only a handful of albums and EPs to their name, seminal hip hop group N.W.A. may be one of the only acts whose biopic took longer to come about than the story it ostensibly tells. But after a development period of many years, a string of writers and directors attached and more than one false start, F. Gary Gray‘s “Straight Outta Compton” rolls into theaters (our review is here) this weekend, telling the story of the 5-man crew that seismically redefined the hip hop landscape, controversially ushered in the era of the gangsta rap, and launched stellar multi-hyphenate solo careers.
Somewhat like the far-reaching influence of the not terribly prolific group, hip hop encompasses an ethos that extends way beyond the music at its core. As a distinct culture that continues to leave a profound mark on fashion, filmmaking, urban art, and the media and entertainment industries at large, hip hop has exploded out from its marginalized origins and is now an inescapable pop cultural cornerstone. In many ways, mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, with its inherent conservatism and reluctance to showcase stories detailing the black experience, has been slower than many other industries to embrace it, but there have been some notable exceptions. If you want to catch up on your hip hop movie history prior to checking out “Straight Outta Compton” this Friday, here are 14 great hip hop films —some old, some new, some good, some not so good, but all taking hip hop culture as their central focus.
“8 Mile” (2002)
It seemed like little more than a self-aggrandizing vanity project on paper, but “8 Mile” become a minor classic in the genre the moment it hit theaters. It’s a familiar underdog story structured perfectly around the rise of Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith, a barely fictionalized Eminem, which already at the time had been intensely explored through his first two massive records, The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP. His upbringing and struggles in Detroit, his frayed relationships with his mother and his girlfriend —each were subjects brought to life by “L.A. Confidential” director Curtis Hanson and writer Scott Silver, with suitably bleak cinematography by Inarritu collaborator Rodrigo Prieto. And since they were subjects explored relentlessly by Eminem in his lyrics, when we first see his character choking on his words during a rap battle in the film’s opening scene, and he’s played by Eminem himself, we’re already fully up to speed. Those battles —the signature of the film— were always going to be electric, but the fact that Eminem went up for real against co-stars and extras while Hanson just kept rolling only adds to the energy. But it was in the more dramatic scenes, whether opposite Kim Basinger or an excellent Brittany Murphy, that Eminem surprised with his nuanced performance that cut through any artifice built up in the story. While the rapper hasn’t acted much since (though has cameo’d as himself a couple of times), he was the first choice for Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” which only went to Jake Gyllenhaal after he dropped out, and it’s interesting to wonder what he might do with a lead that is not so overtly autobiographical. Still, it’s the confluence of the real person, the actor and the personality represented through music, as well as the considerable behind the camera talent, that means “8 Mile” will always be a superior entry in the hip hop movie canon.
“Beat Street” (1984)
Even in the relatively early days of hip-hop, Hollywood was eager to cash in on the phenomenon: the studios might not have understood it, but they could see that there was money to be made as such. The summer of 1984 might have been the zenith of that, with two rap-themed movies, “Breakin’” and “Beat Street,” competing at the box office. “Beat Street” (produced by noted rapper, erm, Harry Belafonte) was undoubtedly the better of the two, but that’s not saying a huge amount —the amateurish, Cannon-produced “Breakin’” is awful. The slightly later picture, however, focuses on two brothers, aspiring MC Kenny (Guy Davis) and breakdancer Lee (Robert Taylor). Both have dreams of making it big and are aided by Tracy (a debuting Rae Dawn Chong), a college student and composer from the right side of the tracks. The film, written by among others future “The Fugitive” director Andrew Davis and directed by TV veteran Stan Lathan, has about as much in common with actual-1984 New York as “The Warriors” did, and is plotless and episodic (and when it does try to insert some stakes, as with the brothers’ graffiti artist pal’s deadly feud with a rival, becomes kind of laughable), and features some decidedly inconsistent acting. But when it works, it really works, as during the musical performance from the likes of Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force, or in the breakdancing sequences (featured in our Favorite Dance-Offs piece). In these moments, “Beat Street” sings, with Lathan introducing a vibrancy and color that’s almost reminiscent of old-school Hollywood musicals. It might sometimes come across like Steve Buscemi wearing a backwards baseball cap and holding a skateboard, but its cultural impact in terms of introducing hip hop to a wider audience (especially around the world) was enormous. And the soundtrack’s just great.
“Boyz N The Hood” (1991)
With a title taken from Eazy-E‘s debut solo single, which was written by fellow NWA member Ice Cube and who stars here, John Singleton‘s “Boyz N The Hood” may not ostensibly be about hip hop, but it is wholly indebted to hip hop culture. Though the last words of the film read “Increase The Peace,” part of the legacy of this layered, seminal directorial debut set in South Central Los Angeles is how it was blamed for acts of violence that followed, namely the 1992 LA riots. No matter the attention paid in the film toward intelligently exploring the cycle of violence, the story of Tre, Ricky and Doughboy was spun into a negative by a scaremongering media establishment. Since more than 25 years later similar judgments are being made of Spike Lee‘s “Chiraq” well before its release, clearly we haven’t come far enough. Willed into existence by an assured 22-year-old Singleton, ‘Boyz’ drew on the director’s upbringing in LA, and brings out incredible performances from Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Morris Chestnut as the film’s central three friends, while Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne do career-best work in support as well. It’s a film that felt immediate and undeniable, announcng Singleton as powerhouse voice that subsequent films like “Rosewood” and “Higher Learning” never quite did justice to. To hear the director speak about his planned Tupac biopic is to sense that urgency return, but until that long-awaited project comes to fruition, ‘Boyz,’ definitively one of the most prescient and important films of the 20th century, is not a bad placeholder.
Given the mock-rock-doc’s beloved status among comedy fans, it was inevitable that hip hop would get its own version of “This Is Spinal Tap,” and it arrived in the shape of the thoroughly enjoyable if somewhat uneven “CB4.” Directed by Tamra Davis (who definitely knew hip hop, having directed N.W.A. videos and being married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys), and co-written by and starring Chris Rock at the very beginning of his career, it’s a mock-documentary that sees three naive, relatively mild-mannered, middle class young rappers, Albert (Rock), Euripides (Allen Payne) and Otis (Deezer D) changing their image and reinventing their past to become bad-boy gangsta rappers, becoming the target of shocked politicians (Phil Hartman), groupies (Khandi Alexander) and the ganglord they sent to prison (Charlie Murphy) along the way. The handsome production values and credible hip hop connections —Ice Cube, Flavor Flav and Eazy E are among those who cameo, while the soundtrack features Public Enemy, KRS-One and Blackstreet— makes the satire land even when you suspect the film is pulling its punches. And it’s very funny in places: in fact, Rock’s only recently found a comedy vehicle as worthy of his talents again with “Top Five.” But for every joke that lands, there’s another that feels lazy, and as with so many studio comedies, the plot takes over in the third act and ends up steamrolling over the gags. Not quite the hip-hop ‘Spinal Tap,’ then, but not a bad attempt (the following year’s lower-budget, lower-profile “Fear Of A Black Hat” came closer, but suffers from some of the same problems).
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2004)
In 2004, Dave Chappelle was on top of the world. He already had two seasons of “Chappelle’s Show” under his belt, a sketch comedy series that would flood the popular lexicon of the time (we all surely remember “I’m Rick James, bitch”) and was regarded as taboo-crushing and truly subversive, and he was one of the most popular and respected stand-up comics in the industry. So his decision to throw a massive hip-hop block party in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and invite people from all around the country to attend was a somewhat curious. Raising the stakes considerably was Chappelle’s decision to bring along many of his own favorite hip hop acts, including Common, Talib Kweli, The Roots, a Graduation-era Kanye West and a reunited (!!!) Fugees. And yet “Block Party” turns out to be much more than just a vividly realized and so-fun-it’s-contagious concert movie (which it also is). It’s a rousing testament to the power of community, as well an affirmation of the crazy idea that something as internally divisive and controversial as hip hop music can bring a large mass of people together. Lovingly directed with the whimsy dialed down by Frenchman Michel Gondry, ‘Block Party’ is also laced with the typically irreverent and scatological humor of its host (the scenes where Chappelle addresses the crowd personally are naturally among the highlights) and the performances are electric. The politically-minded Dead Prez evoke fire, brimstone and fierce black preachers with their incendiary set, Big Daddy Kane cements his status as a bonafide mic legend, and Kanye proves why as an M.C. he’s worth more than all the meaningless gossip that surrounds his persona. This isn’t just a great hip-hop movie: it’s a great movie, period.
F. Gary Gray’s 1995 comedy appears alongside “Boyz In The Hood” on this list for a specific reason: both films feel smuggled through the ‘90s studio system but via entirely different circumstances. Whereas “Boyz In The Hood” found a key supporter early on in producer Stephanie Allain, who pitched it personally to Columbia execs, “Friday” began as a $75,000 B&W comedy from a 24-year-old Gray that gradually built, after many half-starts, into one of New Line Cinema’s most lucrative franchises. The two films are comparable by how Gray’s film was influenced by Singleton’s —the success of ‘Boyz,’ alongside the LA Riots, meant that South Central held a specific point of reference in the public consciousness, one of nonstop violence and degradation. Ice Cube, who co-wrote the film with DJ Pooh and starred, set out to change that. “Everybody was looking at our neighborhood like it was hell on Earth, like the worst place you can grow up in America,” Cube recounts in Complex’s in-depth oral history of the film. “And I’m like, ‘why?’ I didn’t see it all that way. I mean, I knew it was crazy around where I grew up, but we had fun in the hood. We used to trip off the neighborhood.” Seen mostly from the view of a front stoop, the film is notable for letting the environment seep into the narrative. The vibe is laid-back to an extreme, more a steady chuckle than laugh-out-loud funny, with Chris Tucker’s eternally stoned character Smokey mainly responsible for the film’s peaks in energy, as well as its most quotable lines (you’ve heard, “You got knocked the fuck out” at some point, guaranteed, although Cube’s “Bye, Felicia” may even be supplanting that as a modern meme). Gray’s film was a deserved launching pad for Tucker, as well as a dizzying list of actors —Meagan Good, Nia Long, Faizon Love, Tommy Lister— and as the director tackles the epic breadth of N.W.A. with “Straight Outta Compton,” it’s worth revisiting to see just how much, in collaboration with Cube all those years ago, he could achieve just outside the front door.
“Get Rich Or Die Tryin'” (2005)
After the enormous success of Universal‘s “8 Mile,” Paramount tried to cash in by signing up Eminem’s protege Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, a man with a bad-boy past that far surpassed that of Marshall Mathers, to star in his own autobiographical big-screen memoir. As with Curtis Hanson‘s film, big-name, prestige-y talent was involved: “The Sopranos” writer Terence Winter (who’s since showrun “Boardwalk Empire” and the upcoming “Vinyl” for Martin Scorsese and HBO) penned the script, and “My Left Foot“‘s Jim Sheridan, hot off the multi-Oscar nominee “In America,” was hired to direct. Unfortunately, the results were less than satisfactory for pretty much everybody. Jackson stars as Marcus, a young man who, after the death of his beloved mother and while being looked after by his grandmother (played by Viola Davis, at 39 just 10 years older than her on-screen grandson) becomes a drug dealer and is targeted by his boss’ ambitious right-hand man (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Sheridan and Winter do their best (there’s occasionally a pleasing level of texture in the film’s margins), surrounding Jackson with some strong actors, including Davis, Joy Bryant and Terrence Howard, but the material leans so heavily on the star’s I-got-shot-a-bunch-of-times-and-now-I’m-rich mythos that it feels at once self-aggrandizing and fairly boring. Indeed, the film’s biggest problem is Jackson himself: whereas Eminem proved to be a charismatic performer, Jackson’s almost entirely mumbly, one-note and inexpressive. A decade on, he’s still acting, up to and including last month’s “Southpaw,” but a smarter star would have taken the tepid response to this and decided to focus on music. Still, if nothing else, it’s an amusing title for his biopic in light of his recent bankruptcy.
“Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai” (1999)
Drawing the viewer in with a certain premise and promptly jettisoning it for the path less travelled, Jim Jarmusch’s eighth film explores the less bombastic flipside to the Wu Tang Clan’s influences. Jarmusch knows the territory: he was amongst the first filmmakers to approach RZA for a soundtrack, as well as a cameo, in his story featuring Forest Whitaker as a solitary hitman living on a metropolitan rooftop and dodging a host of gangsters (including his mentor) out to kill him. But it’s the Eastern philosophy (precluding the action sequences of RZA’s own effort “Man With the Iron Fists”) that’s the focus here, morphing “Ghost Dog” into an understated mash-up of genres: an existentialist, multi-cultural, samurai noir that shifts fundamentally from scene to scene. Every action that Whitaker’s character takes is deliberate, with Jarmusch paying close attention to the various codes, samurai and otherwise, running the city and its citizens, but replaying that through an urban, hip hop-influenced matrix. The themes of author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Rashōmon” play into the narrative heavily as well, with Akutagawa’s book actually showing up, passed down from Whitaker’s character to Pearline (Camille Winbush), an impressionable young girl he befriends. But the film is not the dour, po-faced affair all this would suggest: an assassination via sink drain is an arthouse “Home Alone” gag; a stare-down between Whitaker and a dog over ice cream is similarly amusing. But be ready for the same sort of genre-soaked meditation that Jarmusch has only improved upon with “The Limits of Control” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” albeit one with an absolutely stellar soundtrack album that includes a couple of Wu Tang and RZA cuts not heard in the film.
“Hustle and Flow” (2005)
The first scene of Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” is really something else. Terrence Howard sits in the front seat of a two-tone Chevy Caprice. His hair sits atop his head in luxuriant curls, and a thin film of sweat coats his face. He talks to a young, scowling, natty-haired white woman who sits in his passenger’s seat. “Man ain’t like a dawg”, he drawls, although his words occasionally resemble some soupy, lurching verbal gumbo of his own creation more than what’s traditionally known as the English language. The soliloquy he gives to this young woman is alternately wise, disgusting, horrifying and true. It sets a high mark that the rest of the movie does not necessarily meet, but this brief, nasty three or four minutes of cinema never wholly leaves your mind. “Hustle & Flow” is a sordid if ultimately redemptive underdog story about a bottom-feeding pimp named DJay (Howard) who learns to channel his frustrations and dreams into rap music. The arc is familiar, but the execution is undeniably lively. Recording sequences are a highlight, as they capture the feeling of making combustive magic happen in the studio. The creation of DJay’s “Whoop That Trick” in particular is thrilling, even if the song itself, along with the Oscar-winning “It’s Hard Out There For a Pimp” is fairly repugnant. “Hustle & Flow” comes undone near the end when its sense of fever-dream melodrama —a longtime narrative weakness of director Brewer— threatens to overshadow some of the fine characterization and nuance that has come before, but still, it’s worth seeing for the soundtrack, the brilliant evocation of modern-day Southern rot and the menacing, baby-voiced turn from leading man Howard, who has never been better. DJay may be a dog, but like the film, he’s got some fight in him yet.
Of all the “hood” dramas to emerge in the early ’90s, there’s a vocal faction who have made the case for “Juice” being one of the best, perhaps only second to the Hughes Bros‘ “Menace II Society” for sheer entertainment value. It’s less preachy than “Boyz N The Hood,” more focused and tonally coherent than “Dead Presidents” and it is not, thank God, “Poetic Justice.” The directorial debut of cinematographer and Spike Lee’s former classmate Ernest Dickerson, (who would go on to direct many fine episodes of HBO’s “The Wire”) “Juice” plays like a jacked-up, adrenalized urban buddy movie, albeit one that climaxes in agonizing bloodshed. Our four heroes are the level-headed Q, (Omar Epps), apoplectic Bishop (Tupac Shakur), romantic Raheem (Khalil Kain) and the chubby, loveable group teddy bear Steel (Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins). Apart from Q aspiring to be a DJ, this four-man team —known in their neighborhood as “The Wrecking Crew”— don’t tend to make big plans. More often than not, they are content to spend their days drinking 40s, shopping for LPs, hanging out at the arcade and trying to flirt with random honeys. After getting pushed around one too many times, Tupac’s Bishop, who tellingly obsesses over James Cagney in “White Heat,” decides that the crew must rob a local liquor store in order to get some respect, or “juice.” What unfolds is genuinely harrowing, and even if the enterprise is somewhat dated now —there’s only so many fades, Cuban link chains and high-top Adidas sneakers one can be expected to process over the course of 100 minutes— the film benefits from authentic emotional stakes and the earnest investment of its actors. This is particularly true of Shakur, who makes Bishop an insecure, bullied beta male who unwittingly transforms into a live-action human time bomb. The film is also wise not to glorify the gangsta lifestyle: there’s nothing glamorous about Dickerson’s unsentimental portrayal of stupid, meaningless violence, casual amorality and fractured friendships. “Juice” is most certainly a product of its time, but viewed now, it can be seen as a superior one.
The life of Christopher Wallace, better known to the world as the Notorious B.I.G., was always ripe for a movie treatment. Here’s a kid who grew up in crime-infested Bed-Stuy, sold crack in his teens, ascended to the highest echelons of mid-1990’s gangster rap and was shot dead in the streets of Los Angeles, a case that is no closer to being solved now than it was in 1997. In theory, the gritty, neo-realistic fiction that informed his best verses —particularly 1994’s watershed “Ready to Die”, which is flush with cinematic criminology raps, murder scenarios and suicidal thoughts— should have also informed the big-screen treatment of his life, directed by “Soul Food“‘s George Tillman, Jr. And yet sadly, it was not to be. “Notorious” has moments of undeniable power, and rapper/actor/comic Jamal Woolard as Big exudes the same uncanny mixture of self-deprecation and menace that gave Wallace his unique aura. But ultimately, “Notorious” falls prey to biopic syndrome, losing itself in a haze of cliché. The recording sessions fail to make us feel the electricity of his iconic recordings, a lot of the supporting performances seem like rote ‘SNL’ impressions (the normally reliable Anthony Mackie really doesn’t fare well as Wallace’s West-Coast rival Tupac Shakur) and the attempts to reproduce many of the pivotal moments in Biggie’s career feel like stunts. Still, it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of the rapper, or until the day comes when the real, crazier-than-life story of the Bad Boy vs. Death Row beef gets the movie treatment it deserves. Woolard’s performance is poignant and the movie has its moments, yet “Notorious” fails to place in the upper rank of hip hop cinema.
“Slingshot Hip Hop” (2008)
Imitation comes first in Jackie Reem Salloum’s 2008 documentary “Slingshot Hip Hop,” as the three members of Palestinian group DAM (“Blood” in Arabic) look to U.S. hip hop for subject matter and influences. It isn’t that these musicians are ignorant of the political chaos and oppression surrounding them as Palestinians living in Lyd, a city based within Israel, but the film charts their journey toward fusing U.S. hip hop with their own politically charged perspectives. Recently Mike Skinner of The Streets returned to Lyd to speak with DAM for the Noisey series “Hip Hop In The Holy Land,” and found musician Tamer Nafar speaking of the same struggle that Salloum’s documentary captured seven years earlier. In that way, “Slingshot Hip Hop” remains vital —it’s a quick primer on the origins of Palestinian hip hop through animation, news footage and the artists’ individual stories, told by the artists’ themselves. Every gig turns out to be a dangerous prospect, as does the simple use of language: one artist, Abeer, is fired from her job at McDonalds for speaking Arabic before successfully suing them. Other acts, including the Akko female rap duo Arapeyat, contribute tales of similar battles and victories; while the film sometimes falters in its presentation and flow, these moments stand out as an excellent introduction to one of hip hop’s most rapidly growing scenes, and as a reminder of the genre’s ability to reflect and influence social change in countries and cultures far from these shores.
“This Is The Life” (2008)
For those who only first caught sight of Ava DuVernay this past year around “Selma” and her talks with Marvel, you’ll find a familiar face in her documentary “This Is The Life,” when she shows up onscreen as MC Eve, a member of Los Angeles group Figures of Speech with Ronda Ross aka MC Jyant. DuVernay’s prior involvement in the West Coast hip hop scene allows for an insider’s perspective in this extremely well-versed, entertaining look at the Los Angeles locations and artists that gained prominence in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Chillin’ Villain Empire, Cut Chemist, T-Love, Monalisa Murray, Chali2Na of Jurassic 5 and many others lend their voices to discussing The Good Life Café, a South Central health food restaurant whose open mic nights quickly grew from audiences of four to shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. As a rebuttal to the gangsta rap that dominated pop culture at the time, the Good Lifers opted for historically fluent freestyles and test runs for material under the guidance of B. Hall, the maternal founder of the open mic who managed the event with her son Arkane Blaze. Hall also instituted a “no cursing” decree during Good Life nights, even kicking out rappers such as Fat Joe when they visited and thought themselves above the rules. DuVernay’s doc is an irreplaceable document of that movement —established before the 1992 LA Riots, yet focusing that event’s energy into the many nights that followed at Good Life, a place of no gum on the floor, no leaning on the paintings, and also some of the purest West Coast hip hop values and vibes during the decade of its existence.
“Wild Style”/“Style Wars” (1983)
Consistently recognized as first hip hop film, 1983’s “Wild Style” portrayed the cultural holy trinity of the genre: rap, breakdancing, and graffiti. And depiction and reality are close neighbors here, with artist and first-time director Charlie Ahearn researching the scene, finding many collaborators —from musicians like Fred ‘Fab Five Freddy’ Brathwaite and Grandmaster Flash to above-ground graffiti legends like Lady Pink, Lee Quinones, and ZEPHYR— and deciding to film a scripted version of the research itself. Prepare yourself for the flimsiest of narrative backbones and a handful of cringeworthy performances, but it’s more about the atmosphere, which is energetic, infectious and inviting, despite startling sights like a dilapidated early-‘80s Bronx; subway trains covered inside and out with graffiti; and Patti Astor smiling off an attempted mugging before going to a Manhattan art show. The film also has a companion piece released the same year, Tony Silver’s documentary “Style Wars”, which you’d almost swear captures the moments that Ahearn observed while preparing for his project (Fab Five Freddy even based his “Wild Style” character Phade off a main subject in “Style Wars”). Silver takes more of a landscape perspective, interviewing both the writers who are tagging the city and the politicians who are fighting to bring them down. Insightful, playful, and shot through with an affectionate nostalgia, both films would make up a perfect double feature and feel like they were co-stars on the same block, two simultaneous productions with different approaches toward the same cultural sea change that lay just around the corner.
14 entries can only scratch the surface of the various narratives and documentaries covering the ways in which hip hop fragmented and reformed (a new scene has likely cropped up as you read this sentence). That said, “Breakin” is a classic blend of Turbo, Ozone and Chaka Khan that almost found a way onto the list. “Fear Of A Black Hat” is a mockumentary that explored the same angle as “CB4”, with some similarly tired gags but some inspired scenes. “Menace II Society” is pretty crucial, but we mentioned it above in brief. MTV’s “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” definitely feels like a made-for-TV movie, but chances are if you’ve seen the film, you remember two things: Beyonce’s stunning red dress and the soundtrack. Sabrina Lee’s “Where You From” takes a fascinating look at rap battles in Humboldt County, California —a rural, West Coast “8 Mile,” if you will. Menhaj Huda’s “Kidulthood” sourced a great deal of its cast and soundtrack from UK hip hop heavyweights including Roots Manuva, Wiley and Plan B. And as an example of how hip hop can be grafted onto any rags-to-riches narrative, the exercise in unnecessary decadence that is Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” almost qualifies as a hip hop film, as soundtrack curator Jay-Z points out the shocking similarities between Kanye West’s “Power,” among others, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of hubris and excess. Feel free to shout out your own favorites below before dropping the mic and peacing out.
— Charlie Schmidlin, Nicholas Laskin, Oli Lyttelton