Movies that prominently feature hip-hop are a joy for any rap fan. The acting might not always be Oscar worthy, but the music and the performances are almost always entertaining. In this niche area, certain movies are bound to make it to the top of any list of potent hip-hop films.
There are the ‘80s flicks, such as the legendary Wild Style, Breakin’, Beat Street, and Krush Groove.
Then there are the films of the ‘90s, like Kid ‘N Play’s House Party series and Chris Rock’s gangsta rap parody CB4.
The first decade of the new millennium saw Eminem’s semiautobiographical 8 Mile, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and the posthumous Tupac documentary Tupac: Resurrection.
In 2002, Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan, along with emcees Mos Def and Queen Latifah, starred in Brown Sugar, a movie that depicts a lifelong friendship and romance between a hip-hop producer and a magazine editor. Their bond blossoms through their mutual, profound love for hip-hop culture, and we watch as they expound upon the metaphor in Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.”
In 2009, we saw the life of Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace brought to theaters in Notorious.
Aside from movies that are directly related to rap, there are those inspired by themes in rap songs, such as John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, starring Ice Cube and titled after the Ice Cube-penned Eazy-E-performed song of the same name. This film opened the door for Ice Cube in movies, and he’s starred in many, from Friday to Barbershop and of course the often maligned Are We There Yet. As with Ice Cube’s filmography, we could cite films that star or feature rappers, even if the themes of the films aren’t specifically rap-related, as is the case with Hype Williams’s intense project Belly, starring Nas and DMX. Other rappers have found work on screens big and small, notably Tupac Shakur, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, LL Cool J, DMX, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, and Common. Will Smith, or the known in rap as “The Fresh Prince”, became a megastar cranking out all sorts of blockbuster movies.
Fear of a Black Hat
Rusty Cundieff, Larry B. Scott, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Kasi Lemmons
(Sony; US DVD: 8 Jul 2003)
One film has gone underrated in the annals of hip-hop cinema. The year was 1994. The movie, Fear of a Black Hat. Kind of an odd title for a film but, then again, it’s an oddball movie. Titled as a variation on the 1990 Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet, the movie Fear of a Black Hat leans heavily on wit and satire. Written and directed by Rusty Cundieff, Fear of a Black Hat uses humor to examine the truths and exaggerations of, and about, hip-hop culture circa 1994. In this, the film succeeds in celebrating hip-hop by acknowledging the power and influence of the music.
Fear of a Black Hat is also biting and unflinching, and in being so it forces hip-hop fans to stare soberly at the culture’s flaws and to revisit their own reasons for loving the music. Of course, 1994 was, relatively speaking, a long time ago. The movie’s relevance for us now consists in showing us where we’ve been, comparing and contrasting the past with our current state, and suggesting where we might go in the future. If none of that grabs you, at least embrace the allure of trivia you get from the brief cameo by Penny Johnson Jerald, the actress who later played the wife of Dennis Haysbert’s President David Palmer on 24.
Styled after movies like the ‘80s rock parodyThis is Spinal Tap and rendered with the resourceful independent vision of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Fear of a Black Hat operates on a simple premise. That premise begins with Nina Blackburn, played by actress (and, later on, director) Kasi Lemmons. Blackburn is working on her college thesis in which she explores hip-hop’s impact on language and communication. She posits that hip-hop functions, first, as “the political voice of today’s urban youth” and, second, a “tracer of styles and values”. Her research in this regard includes filming a documentary on a fictional rap group called NWH, which stands for N*ggaz With Hats and plays off of the real-life rap group NWA, or N*ggas With Attitudes. We watch as Ms. Blackburn documents a single year of NWH’s career.
NWH is a three-man ensemble. Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff), is the front man and main songwriter. The character comes off as a mixture of Public Enemy’s Chuck D (in terms of his leadership position in the group), Ice-T and Ice Cube (in terms of his stage name, role in the fictitious New Jack City-like New Mack Village, and Jheri curl hairstyle), and Paris (in terms of his voice and political bent). Although the other NWH rapper, Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott), has a name that scans like Flava Flav, he is reminiscent of Eazy-E, given Tasty’s short stature, sunglasses, and (once again) Jehri curl. The group’s DJ is named Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and, despite the humor of that, he’s probably the most levelheaded of the three. The weirdest thing about Tone Def is that he can operate his turntables with a variety of body parts and, yeah, that works out to be as bizarre as it sounds.
Ice Cold, on the other hand, writes songs that are steeped in aggression and sexual imagery, sometimes along the lines of the controversial Florida outfit 2 Live Crew. Nevertheless, he justifies his tunes as being integral to his ideology and worldview. For instance, the movie gets its title from Ice’s philosophy about hats, probably a nod to NWA’s frequent use of Los Angeles Raiders gear as part of their wardrobe.
The NWH song “Wear Yo’ Hat (Buried & Bald)” fits into Ice Cold’s supposed agenda. Historically, he tells Nina, slaves worked on plantations in the hot sun without their hats. Doing so weakened them, made them unable to rebel against their masters. “So,” Ice Cold opines, “what we are saying [with NWH] is, ‘Yo, we got some hats now, mother*ckers.” In real life, rappers have donned baseball caps, skull caps, hoodies, Kangols, and various other head gear. As we’ve seen in a variety of scenarios, fashion can be a big deal in hip-hop, from the debate over baggy pants to the issue of brand dropping in popular songs.
For another song, “Booty Juice”, Ice Cold’s political slant is that “the butt is like society”. NWH believes society should be about “openness” and “expansion”, but it’s the “white man” who wants to “clog it up” and “keep it closed”. Getting a foot inside requires grease, hence the “juice” in the song title, that occurs through dancing or “doing the nasty”. “And on the political tip,” Ice Cold concludes, “All we sayin’ is: we gonna get that ass.”
These are all strange explanations, and they reflect hip-hop’s image to outsiders in the ‘90s and beyond as a genre that suffers from aggressive lyrics, hyper-sexuality, and willful blindness to its faults. Fear of a Black Hat gives many other issues the comedic treatment. Cundieff and company take aim at racial profiling, explicit lyrics and censorship, guns and violence, groupies, misogyny, and record label politics, all of which have exhibited continued relevance.
Still, it’s interesting to see how things have changed since 1994. Society has changed quite a bit, and societal events have contributed to the reshaping of the hip-hop world. When Fear of a Black Hat was released, the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King and the resulting Los Angeles, California riots were still fresh and frequently discussed. Ice-T, who, much later, became a permanent fixture on the Special Victims Unit variation of the Law & Order franchise, released the 1992 song Cop Killa with his rock band Body Count.