Get down or lay down
State Property begins with the ominous declaration that it is “inspired by true events.” Uh-oh. Here comes the earnestness.
Tracking the rise and fall of Philadelphia street hustler Beans (Roc-A-Fella artist Beanie Sigel), State Property has a familiar structure, as well as standard bling-bling hiphop dialogue (according to the New York Times, it’s rated R for “nonstop language”), violence, and misogyny (the first scene takes place in a strip club, in order to allow slow motion views of women in g-strings dancing with poles). It also raises the occasional moral dilemma, but really only in passing, on the way to Beans’ next abuse of some underling, or said underling’s efforts to curry favor with the boss by shooting down some enemy on the street or in a club.
In his hubris and short-sightedness, Beans recalls the original original gangsters, like Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte in Scarface (Howard Hawks 1932) or Jimmy Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939). Mean, arrogant, and self-righteously ambitious, Beans is less a role model than an object lesson, charismatic and compelling to watch almost in spite of himself (that said, Sigel has a way to go before he commands the screen like a Cagney or Edward G. Robinson). Also like the ‘30s gangster pictures, State Property indicts the environment that creates such a monster, including corrupt government agents, the local five-o as well as the DEA and FBI. Beans and his ilk can’t exist (and thrive) without serious assistance from the powers that be, and the film makes sure to point out pay-offs and instances of official ineptitude.
But for all its social and political potential, State Property doesn’t end up being very inspiring or insightful. Partly, this is a function of genre. It’s the first feature directed and co-written (with Ernest “Tron” Anderson) by Abdul Malik Abbott, who has previously directed music videos for Roc-A-Fella artists, as well as the straight-to-video Streets Is Watching (which is more an “illustration” of Jay-Z’s album of the same name than a film proper). As you expect, Beans begins the film as a lowly street hustler, then makes his way up the neighborhood ladder by having his opponents killed off, believing all the time that he’s making real progress because of all the ice he’s rocking.
Beans is motivated to make his first move (literally, he wants to move out of his mom’s house, so he needs “real paper, man”) when he and his boy, Baby Boy (Omillio Sparks), witness a brutal and outrageously in-the-open shooting by the remarkably poised Blizz (Memphis Bleek). Impressed, they chase him down in their SUV, and, after he almost shoots their heads off, they recruit him as a soldier. “Several weeks later,” the film informs you, the trio is off and running.
Their main game is drugs, cocaine specifically. Whatever cautionary tale Mario Van Peebles and Wesley Snipes thought they were weaving in New Jack City way back in 1992, well, maybe these cats just don’t watch movies much. Or more likely, their sense of Nino Brown and his CMB (Cash Money Brothers) is that he’s a grand and mesmerizing visionary who makes a couple of unfortunate—and fatal—mistakes. (Besides, Abbott’s film certainly doesn’t heroicize or complicate the cops, as did Van Peebles’; here the detectives are unimaginative bullies, straight-up.) However they come up with the idea, Beans, Blizz, and Baby Boy make pact with an initialed moniker and everything. (Theirs is ABM, not so cleverly short for All About the Money). Beans’ signature line—because he’s got to have one—is “You either get down or you lay down.” When someone refuses to “get down” (accept Beans’ terms, pay up, or do what he’s told), well then, that someone is made to lay down, um, forever.
At first, things go easily: Beans’ own first hands-on effort involves literally beating down one particularly revered street elder who refuses to “get down.” Beans’ bat goes whomp, the guy’s blood and brains go splat, and Beans and his cohorts heft the body into a nearby dumpster. With that, the camera pulls out to show the grimy, back-alley everydayness of the scene, as Beans re-composes himself, blood fresh on his white wife-beater. Cut to a scene to display his regular guyness, in the form of his girl, Aisha (Sundy Carter). She likes to shop, and she loves her man. Even though she knows his business is brutal, worries that she might lose him, and that he spends too much time with his boys, smoking dope and drinking Cristal, the fact of the violence doesn’t bother her per se—it’s what men do, as far as she can tell. At least Beans provides a hefty credit card allowance.
Before you know it, Aisha bears Beans’ daughter, and by the time the daughter is having her fifth birthday, Beans is ignoring his woman in favor of his business, at the same time that his voice-over is telling you that all he cares about his family; more precisely, all he cares about is making sure that family has all kinds of loot. This situation isn’t immediately threatened, but he imagines it is, in the form of a rival gangsta, Boss Dame (Damon Dash, the famously ruthless Roc-A-Fella exec and Jay-Z running partner, recently best known as Aaliyah’s grieving boyfriend). The part is basically a chance for Dash to show off his comedy skills, in particular when he discusses business with his boss, the laconic Untouchable J (Jay-Z Himself, who mostly appears in his nice ride and on his cell, his face close up to the camera, knowing he’s a star and not working it too hard). Where Untouchable J is preternaturally relaxed, Dame is a nervous wreck, motor-mouthing his way through all possible solutions to the problem posed by Beans, until J finally stops him: “Handle it.”
This handling involves the kidnapping and abuse of his boo Aisha, and that’s a nasty bit of business, revealing that Dame has a really fucked up, cruel streak, as well as that goofy one. Again, this is not precisely news, and neither is Beans’ rage in return. What is unusual is the film’s brief but notable attention to Aisha’s perspective: when Beans is cold in the face of her traumatic experience, and insists that he has to “take care of business,” no matter what she wants, the camera positions her in the bedroom doorway, small and alone (save for baby daughter)—she needn’t say a word, but it’s clear what’s important here. That is, until the cut to Beans in full-on gotta-prove-my-masculinity mode.
Though State Property borrows openly from great films that have come before—in addition to the ‘30s gangster movies and New Jack City, it owes something to the Hughes brothers’ seminal Menace II Society (1993), in particular in Beans’ world-weary, intermittently painfully self-conscious voice-over, which recalls that of Caine (Tyrin Turner). Beans begins by clarifying what’s at issue here: “Forget about my real name. Everyone calls me Beans.” Though he lives in the city ” they call Brotherly Love,” he sighs, “Ain’t no love here. But I’m gonna take mine.” With that, you see a snapshot of Beans and his crew, most every one of them doomed.
That the ‘90s gangsta genre has long since played itself out is of little concern to the up-and-comers, like Abbott, Master P, or the Cash Money outfit. (Master P’s MP Da Last Don  and Cash Money’s Baller Blockin’  are two more straight-to-video semi-movies, telling pretty much the same story as Abbot’s movies, that is, gangster rises, falls, and learns that maybe gold isn’t so glittery, or something like that). As a point of entry into filmmaking (as opposed to video-making?), the hood movie is looking a lot like the slasher flick of old. The scripts are formulaic, the filmmaking merely adequate, and the acting generally atrocious. A key difference between then and now, of course, is that the hood moviemakers aren’t angry, arty white kids, but angry, arty kids of color. That, and the hood movies have access to machinery already in place, decent soundtrack material to be sure, but also money. Master P, Cash Money (at least before Juvenile left the Williams brothers’ outfit late last year), and Roc-A-Fella all have in-house production companies.
This is a somewhat different tack from the one being used by other hiphoppers who break into film acting (and producing, writing, and directing, in the case of Ices T and Cube)—Snoop, Ice Cube, Ice T, Will Smith, and P. Diddy Combs have made their moves variously, through mainstream studio releases, television series and appearances, independent films, and even straight-to-video companies. Between the two of them, Snoop and Ice T, along with Kurupt, Fat Joe, Big Pun, and others, have a veritable video store shelf full of titles to their credit over the past six or seven years—in genres ranging from horror (Ice T’s Leprechaun in the Hood  is one of my favorites) to war to cops and robbers to hood movies (romantic comedies don’t seem to appeal to this crew as yet, which may be just as well, if you think back on ‘NSync-er Lance Bass’s 2001 vanity project, On the Line).
But if the strategy is unlike that of other hiphop stars, and if the film has not gotten the wide release that Sigel and Roc-A-Fella might have once imagined for it, the movie does represent yet another effort to crack the established system. And the move to a theatrical release (rather than straight to video) is not unprecedented either, as Master P’s No Limit got there a few years back with I Got the Hook-Up, a hood comedy of sorts, which still made sure to include the strip club hoochies, guns, and crew loyalty issues that make up the standard dramatic hood movie. Still, the lack of oomph in the film doesn’t bode well. Though Hype Williams and co-writer Nas took the gangsta movie to all kinds of strange (and not entirely profitable, by studio and distributor standards) places in Belly, the film deconstructed the genre in ways that repay repeat viewings. Abbott and his crew seem content to rehearse what’s come before pretty much intact. As the slasher phenomenon showed (and continues to show), it does help to exhibit some ingenuity, to extend yourself beyond what you think you know.