How Black Screenwriters Legitimize The Artistry Of Hip-Hop Through Film

08.02.18 12 months ago

Getty / Uproxx Studios

Kendrick Lamar made his acting debut this week on Starz’ Power, playing an unkempt, eccentric flacka addict named Laces. Power co-creator and writer Courtney Kemp said that the gritty crime drama’s rule for star cameos is that the aspiring actor would have to portray the opposite of what the public would expect, and decided with Kendrick that he would play a “crackhead” to surprise the audience.

From the second he appeared on screen though, the racial unity-preaching Laces reminded me of an avant-garde character ripe for a skit, verse, or music video from a Kendrick Lamar project. And it’s not just the half-braided, half afro ‘do that Kendrick more neatly rocked on Saturday Night Live or Laces’ deranged cackle that harkens to the brilliant voice manipulation throughout his music.

In his short screen debut, Kendrick was a wide-ranging presence — he didn’t merely say one line and disappear. In just a couple scenes, Kendrick acted as memorable comic relief with his “nasty, nasty n—- “ line, was a unique plot device to further one of the series’ main storylines, and became one of the few characters on the show who appeared to make 50 Cent’s sociopathic, hyperbolically indestructible character Kanan have a glint of existential introspection by asking him about his inner sadness and inability to make human connection — before the gag is revealing that Laces was reciting a commercial for the depression drug Cymbalta.

Kendrick said in a sit down with Kemp that Laces reminded him of “a character that I know” from his native Compton. Given Kendrick’s music is so steeped in reflecting the realities of his hometown, Laces is a clever harkening to Lamar’s musical artistry, which is a further testament to the Power writers’ understanding of the rapper. They’ve already perfectly accentuated 50 Cent’s music persona through Kanan, a conflict-craved gangster from Jamaica, Queens who is just as apt to drop a hilarious one-liner as he is to attack every character in a scene. As Kendrick and 50 Cent slid down a New York street, with Laces darting around like a hood hobgoblin and Kanan shooting up rival gang members, it was as if both characters had been pulled from either artist’s rhymebook and fit into the script.

The quandary is, if 50 or Kendrick wrote a rhyme about riding down the block on a bike shooting people, you could bet some of the same critics who grant Power writers their due freedom as screenwriters would be less willing to identify solely those verses as works of art. Since hip-hop’s inception, rappers have had to bear the criticism of being instigators of gun violence who are seemingly guilty of steering the entire Black community’s moral compass wayward. That argument is based in some merit, given artists’ impact on the youth, but that dynamic shouldn’t deprive rap artists of the same creative freedom given to novel writers and screenwriters. Writer and director David Chase has said that his canonic Sopranos series is based on Italian wiseguys he saw while growing up in Newark, New Jersey’s North Ward neighborhood. Chase’s explanation parallels the foundation of basically every hip-hop album, yet his artistry has never been questioned — as it shouldn’t be.

Hip-hop culture has been co-opted — and in many ways diluted — to become corporate America’s ace-in-the-hole, but the music has taken a slower time being accepted by the artistic bastions of the same establishment. Hip-hop is always the Grammys’ bridesmaid, but never the bride, as this year’s ceremony once again displayed. Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy gushed that Kendrick’s win for DAMN. “shines a light on hip-hop in a different way.” In reality, hip-hop always shone brilliantly before that light existed. Kendrick’s Pulitzer nod is an incredible feat, but it’s a damn shame it took this long for a hip-hop project to have been recognized when canonical projects like Illmatic, Ready To Die, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill — to name just a few — were never considered.

Part of that delay has been a racially-motivated stigma against rap music — even while so many artists tackle the same cultural themes prevalent in their music on the big screen. Black screenwriters, in particular, have shown themselves as visionaries in channeling an artist’s sonic universe onto the screen and presenting compelling stories that bolster the legitimacy of their musical artistry.

Vanity Fair described Boyz N The Hood as a “groundbreaking movie that put a human face on the gangsta-style killings” taking place throughout Los Angeles. Ice Cube was doing the same thing as a member of N.W.A and as a solo star, but was stigmatized by mainstream America for his racy, gruff lyrics. Then-Minnesota attorney general Hubert Humphrey III called the lyrics to N.W.A.’s seminal Straight Outta Compton “nothing but filth.” Director John Singleton thought otherwise and wrote a role in his upcoming Boyz N The Hood movie specifically for Ice Cube. Singleton has said that he actually wanted the entirety of N.W.A. in the film. They did after all have a song called “Boyz N The Hood,” released years before the movie.

Cube is a movie entity in 2018, but he hadn’t acted in anything before Boyz N The Hood. Putting hip-hop stars in a film in 1991 wasn’t a fullproof strategy for success, so Singleton’s impetus for casting Cube in a starring role wasn’t just that he was a rapper, but that he was the rapper telling the exact tale that Boyz N The Hood told. Doughboy’s iconic “they either don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care what goes on in the ghetto” sounds like it could have been angrily belted atop Bomb Squad production on Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.

The Daily Beast recalls that N.W.A “terrified” white America, yet Boyz N The Hood has been put in the National Film Registry. Sure, the movie had a bit more pathos than any N.W.A or Ice Cube album, but the disparity in reception between cinema and music is still glaring. Perhaps even if mainstream America couldn’t stomach Cube’s lyrics, the likable, doomed character he played in Boyz N The Hood gave them a bit more perspective on the factors that led to “The N—- You Love To Hate” being created all over the country.

Singleton longed to do the same for Tupac in Baby Boy, a 2001 film he wrote in the ’90s with the slain rapper in mind. Tupac died in 1996, before he had the chance to play the role that Tyrese took on as Jody, and though Tupac wasn’t in the film sans an ominous mural in Jody’s bedroom, the premise of Baby Boy was the foundation of so many of Tupac’s musical narratives: a young Black male coming of age in a gang-ridden environment.

And, though Tupac’s breakout film role in Juice wasn’t written for him, the young star embodied the role co-written by Ernest R. Dickerson and Gerard Brown with a zeal and feckless charisma that defined his mic presence and overall fiery aura. The film was about a crew of high schoolers in Harlem but was dominated by Tupac’s character Bishop, an impoverished youth with seemingly everything to prove. Bishop’s quest for neighborhood respect consumed him and turned him against his onetime friends. He accidentally killed one while fighting for a gun, and tried to kill the other two after being irrevocably changed by the initial murder.

Tupac was a complex individual, but the at-times combustible star definitely identified with Bishop’s unhinged nature and intensity. His Juice co-star Khalil Kain has argued that Bishop “introduced Pac to Tupac” in the sense that the character was a preview of Tupac’s rap stardom defined by conflict and summed up by a famous Vibe cover that asked: “Is Tupac Crazy Or Just Misunderstood?” In reality, Bishop was basically a bit of both, as an onscreen amalgamation of the rebel without a cause energy radiated throughout Tupac’s catalog. Bishop could’ve been plucked from any one of Tupac’s musical tales about a disillusioned male caught up in the system and navigating a world that resented his existence.

Famed music video director Hype Williams and his writing staff similarly created roles that mimicked pre-existing musical narratives of Nas and DMX in the hood classic Belly. Both co-stars play roles with characteristics seemingly tailor-made for them in the sleek cult classic. If someone were to ask you to listen to Nas’ catalog and create a movie character based off of it, you couldn’t do better than Sincere, a drug-dealing 5-percenter with a conscience and an immense reading habit who ultimately moved to Africa with his wife and child to leave the game behind. Belly even mimicked a scene from Illmatic’s “One Love,” as Nas tried to speak sense to a young adolescent on a park bench in the projects.

Sincere was the moral balance for DMX’s character Tommy Buns, who exhibited the fraught duality that DMX has displayed on revered albums like It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and …And Then There Was X. Tommy was in-your-face, reckless drug dealer and hitman who didn’t even obey red lights. He clearly didn’t give a f*ck… until he was contracted to infiltrate an organization loosely based off the Nation Of Islam, and slowly began to absorb the spiritual lessons to the point where he had an awakening of faith. DMX’s albums typically end with a prayer — and his final scene in Belly ended with him hugging a reverend. It was a perfect closing for a movie that so perfectly breathed cinematic life into both rapper’s mic personas.

And it’s not just dark, gritty dramas that served as perfect parallels for rap stars. Will Smith’s Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air sitcom was an ideal vehicle to translate fun-loving tracks like “Summertime,” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand” onto the big screen. Jive Records even released the show’s iconic theme song, “Yo Home To Bel-Air” as a Will Smith single in 1992. Even if the show never existed, the song could work in a vacuum as another classic early Will Smith song. And that’s where cinema’s power to bolsters an artist’s sonic universe lies; if Power never existed, 50 could write about Kanan in a song and few would bat an eye — but the character’s brilliance would be perceived differently than as show director Kemp’s creation.

While mainstream America has had issues viewing hip-hop as a legitimate art form, Black screenwriters have been immersed in its influence for years. They come from the same places, have the same experiences, and are both familiar with crafting compelling narratives. Artists create outsized artistic depictions of themselves and their surroundings, and screenwriters often do the same. Together, they fuse the booth with the silver screen to create powerful imagery that makes you think you’re seeing sounds, NERD style.

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