Movies about African American experiences have always been in the minority, but this year's slate of potential Oscar contenders provide a startling counter-example: From the newly released police violence drama "Fruitvale Station" to Lee Daniels' upcoming "The Butler," Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" and "Black Nativity," there's a vast array of black movies with a lot on their minds and the potential to dominate national conversations. Despite the implicit progressiveness of that shift, it allows for a greater issue that afflicts moviegoing at large: The big ideas squash the more human ones. If the marketplace is relatively dense with black cinema, not everything can receive equal scrutiny, so the fairly marginal release on Friday of Neil Drumming's enjoyable character piece "Big Words" positions it as the underdog. While not perfect, its restrained approach makes for ideal counter-programming in which message-mongering takes backseat.
First time writer-director and former journalist Drumming's Slamdance Film Festival entry follows a trio of former hip hop artists in New York some 20 years after their short-lived group has dissolved. Set on the eve of Barack Obama's election in 2008, Drumming's small ensemble drama has the contained feel of a leisurely play in which everything but the plot matters. Perhaps the most intellectual, dialogue-driven take on cosmopolitan African Americans since Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy," Drumming's story follows the former group members through their individual struggles as they're haunted by the shadow of their musical career.
"Big Words" lays out the unromantic quality of the characters' contemporary lives in wry contrast to the hype surrounding Obama's imminent election: John, formerly known by his performance name Big Words (Dorian Missick of the TNT drama "Southland"), is a down-on-his luck, recently jobless sad sack who wastes his days at a strip club; James (Gbenga Akinnagbe), once the poseur thug of the group, has since come out of the closet and enjoys a posh Manhattan lifestyle; only Terry, formerly known as DJ Malik (Darien Sills Evans), continues to pursue a career in music, with little success.
Though his low budget and scrappy production values occasionally lend a static quality to the narrative, Drumming ably shifts between several encounters over the course of the historic day with a genial, personable quality that makes it hard not to root for the group's reunion. In light of that implied possibility, "Big Words" at times seems like it's heading towards a microbudget version of "Hustle and Flow," but Drumming aims for a much smarter and subdued look at the various regrets and hang-ups haunting men of a certain age. Their blackness is only one piece of the puzzle.
In fact, as "Big Words" shrewdly establishes in an opening scene, race might be the red herring. "Look on the bright side," says John's grinning white boss shortly after firing him. "Our boy is going to the White House." That trite stab at universality hints not only at a problem afflicting black experience today, but many black movies: As evinced by the hype surrounding this season's set of releases, the conversations about the prevalence of the product eclipses analysis of its overall quality (and also precedes most of the release dates).
The whole country may want more black movies, but do they all have to tussle with grand themes? "Big Words" makes the case that a good black movie doesn't necessarily need to deal with racial issues upfront when the real stories exist in the tension between people whose skin color is beside the point. John might be pumped for Obama's election, but he still needs a job. Drumming explores the disconnect between public and personal triumphs with a witty eloquence that stands in contrast not only to the other movies of its ilk this year but mainstream American movies in general: It's driven by talk.
Even though the former rappers spend much of the movie recalling their past, Drumming avoids flashbacks. Instead, "Big Words" exclusively deals with the way their earlier days bear down on them in the present. For the elitist James, his former stage persona provided a means of hiding his sexual leanings in a cartoonish expression of the other extreme by cultivating a gangsta rap pose. Terry, still wandering about in a drug-fueled haze, has yet to accept that his moment has passed. Only John, the most fully realized and sympathetic member of the group, seems to hover in a kind of limbo in which he has distanced himself from the group's history but has yet to cultivate a new set of priorities.
His burgeoning romance with local stripper Annie (Yaya Alafia, who holds her own in a nearly all-male cast) points to the prospects of unearthing his demons through companionship, but he's reticent to let it all out until she proves her intellect matches her figure. Their ongoing conversations form the movie's strongest ingredient, matched only a climactic moment when the trio finally meet up to talk through the issues that led to their breakup. While the other subplots falter for lack of intrigue, "Big Words" reaches a satisfying whole when the gang reunites -- although the resulting events smartly avoid a clichéd happy ending.
Ironically, the instigating force that sets this conversation in motion comes from the curiosity of James' white colleague Ben (Zachary Booth), whose late father signed the group to a label. Curious about their history with his dad, Ben's questions resurrect a world of infighting and reckless behavior that the men have tried to ignore for decades. Yet as they talk things through on a Brooklyn stoop, the past and present merge before our eyes, largely due to Drumming's committed performers as they elevate a relatively familiar story by making it real. "Big Words" may deal openly with the state of racial discussions in an increasingly homogenized culture, but like the hip hop it wistfully recalls, anyone can groove to its conceits.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Distributor African American Film Releasing Movement will open "Big Words" on Friday in New York and Los Angeles ahead of special one-night screenings in various other major cities throughout the summer. While not positioned to do much big business, its niche market appeal may help it perform decently on digital platforms.