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What Does the Success of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Mean for Black Film? Likely More Hip Hop Biopics Like…

What Does the Success of 'Straight Outta Compton' Mean for Black Film? Likely More Hip Hop Biopics Like...

It happens all the time – a (usually) Hollywood-backed “black movie” excels at the box office (surprising execs and analysts alike), and one of the immediate questions we ask is whether the financial success of whatever the movie is, means anything for “black films” going forward. 

As we’ve seen in the past 25 years, what it typically means is that more films like the box office “anomaly” will likely be greenlit, until studios and audiences have nearly exhausted the narrowest of possibilities. It happened with the so-called “hood movies” that would come after John Singleton’s “Boyz in the Hood” in the early to mid-1990s; and then there was the black rom-com craze that seemed to have been kicked off by films like “Love Jones” and “Hav Plenty;” then Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes got into the movie business in the early 2000s, and thanks in part to the success of films they produced like “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and “Woman Thou Art Loosed,” suddenly, faith-based tales of morality with black women frequently at the center, were in vogue; and then we went through a period of what I deemed “Slave Movie Fever,” after critical and commercial hits like “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” (although, quite frankly, I think we’re still in that period which I should maybe more broadly label the era of the “historical black drama”).

All that to say, if you’re expecting a sudden boost in terms of the variety of “black films” that are backed by Hollywood studios, please don’t. Instead, what I think could happen is that any writer or director with a script based on the life (or lives) of hip hop icons from years past, will likely get more meetings with studio execs than they’ve ever had before! So don’t be surprised if that long-in-limbo Tupac Shakur biopic suddenly is fast-tracked for release in early 2016!

Who else is there?

How about a Public Enemy biopic? Maybe…

At least, front-man Chuck D. hasn’t ruled out the idea entirely, based on a new interview he gave to The Washington Post, published earlier today. In the lengthy piece, Chuck talks N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton” (the movie), the Black Lives Matter movement and Bill Cosby, among other things. 

When asked specifically about the possibility of a Public Enemy biopic, Chuck said the following: “I don’t make movies. I can’t make that call.”

The interviewer pressed a bit further and asked: “If someone approached you, would you be open to it?”

And Chuck D replied: “I ain’t acting in it, and I ain’t writing the script. Where do I figure into Hollywood? … Where it might be involved with something I do, maybe a score, a new soundtrack.”

They pretty much left it there, and moved on to the next topic. But, as I said, he didn’t rule out the idea entirely, except to imply that, if there was indeed interest in a Public Enemy film, he likely wouldn’t have a hand in its making; but it doesn’t seem like he’d be against someone else taking on the challenge. Although they would very likely need his participation to an extent, in relating the group’s stories. 

Another option is that any of the books that have been written about the group could be adapted. And if I had to choose, it would be to start with Christopher Weingarten’s account of the making of PE’s seminal album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” – a classic of hip hop legend. The 2010 book, titled “Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” tells of how the Bomb Squad produced the masterpiece of sound engineering – a thoroughly researched investigation that tells the story of one of hip-hop’s landmark albums, one of a few that was the soundtrack to my high school years.

The book is dedicated solely to breaking down what was the group’s 2nd album, track by track, sample by sample, scratch by scratch, while providing some minor background details on Chuck D and the Bomb Squad (and, to a much lesser degree, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X). So it’s thorough in that sense, but really only gives us about half the story. It would be more complete if we could also hear directly from Chuck D and the Bomb Squad on the assembly of the album.

So instead of a conventional biopic, I’d prefer something that’s more of a chamber piece, focusing entirely on the period that was making of that album, maybe filmed in a documentary style (I’m thinking of Paul Greengrass’ handheld camera and typically gritty intensity), although still very much a scripted narrative. A no frills kind of film that cuts out the fat, and really takes us into the creative minds of one of the most important rap groups in all of hip hop history, as they work through the creation of what would become a masterpiece.

Let’s see if anything comes of this interview with Chuck D, in terms of any studio or producer reaching out to him to discuss making a PE film. I wouldn’t hold my breath though.

It’s also worth noting that Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix musical drama series, “The Get Down” (which will focus on the early days of hip-hop), will be coming at just the right time, if “hip hop movie fever” does indeed become a thing.

There’s also Antoine Fuqua’s Suge Knight project for Showtime – although it’s a documentary, not a scripted feature – which will premiere this fall.

Read the entire Chuck D interview with The Washington Post here.

Any other rappers whose lives/stories you would like to see unfold on the big screen in scripted movies?

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