Cynthia Fuchs

While hip-hop continues to accumulate force and focus to speak more truth to power, it is good, really, to see N'Bushe Wright.


Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Jason George, Sticky Fingaz, Davetta Sherwood, Lalanya Masters, Vishiss, Steven Pasquale
Network: UPN
Creator: Kevin Bray

It's good to see N'Bushe Wright. That is, it's good to see her anywhere, because she's a smart actor who brings grace and sinuous affect to any part she plays. But it's also good to see her on UPN's splashy midseason hip-hop drama, Platinum, where she's got a choice part as Max, crafty, no-nonsense head of Conflict Records. Having inherited the label when her "man went inside," she defends her property and reputation fiercely. Acutely aware of the gender biases in her business, she will not be disrespected.

She makes this clear to her primary competitor, Sweetback Records owner Jackson Rhames (Jason George), during one of those fancy-joint lunch meetings that take up so much time on soaps about backstabbing rich people. On this occasion, Jax has come to discuss Max's recent dispatch of a pair of heavies to beat up on his white boy lawyer partner, David (Steven Pasquale).

What's different here is the tone, the hip-hop industry context and, importantly, the jokes. Platinum has lots of them, thanks to writer John Ridley (Undercover Brother). And so, when Jax protests that his hiring away of Max's star MC, Pharos, is "just business," she comes back: "Negro, please." She then proceeds to read him out for his bad behavior. She pauses only when he reminds her of her own thuglife tactics, noting, "Players like you are making us all look country."

Ouch. Chances are good you won't be hearing this sort of conversation on any other TV series. Nor will you be hearing episodes scored with tracks by Fabolous, Noc-Turnal, Prince, Brian McKnight, Slum Village, and the Clipse (though you will hear the Neptunes, everywhere), courtesy of the eclectic Photek. The series' intelligent edginess is exactly what makes Platinum work, its capacity not only to exult in complicated characters operating in a hip, energetic, over-the-top context (this despite and probably because of frequent comparisons to Dallas), but also to get inside the foolishness produced by such a context.

The fact that the series looks closely at the excessive lives and appetites of hip-hop artists and producers is not in itself news; this is on display every day in bling-bling, poolside-hoochies hip-hop music videos. What is refreshing is that the attitude here is resolutely not straight: these characters are as complex and neurotic as any in The Sopranos or Six Feet Under (in fact, it's executive produced by, among others, Six Feet Under's Robert Greenblatt), and some are as campy as those in Kingpin or Dynasty.

Add to this that the scripts are willing to take on current (or at least recent) craziness in the business: bad behaviors, outrageous trends, inflated self-images. Among the more colorful instances in the first two episodes is the very first scene, where Sweetback's arrogant white rapper, Versis (played by white rapper Vishiss, who apparently can take a joke at his own expense), rebuffs his video director's suggestions by shooting him in the ass. Literally. Panic on the video set is followed by the arrival of Jackson's brother and business partner Grady (Sticky Fingaz), who ensures that the incident will be "taken care of" -- he agrees to pay the director, on a stretcher en route to the ambulance, a cool $75,000.

That everyone takes this insanity pretty much in stride is to the point. Platinum is about making money, at anyone else's expense. Versis is merely product, an investment worth "supporting" only until his earning power is played out. And this, coincidentally, is the verge on which Sweetback teeters as the series begins: the white rapper's sales have fallen off, the brothers owe money every which way ("Blacklash," explains Jackson, by way of being off the hook; nah, says a popular black artist, it's the company's fault: "You can't sell a white boy to white people"). So now, the Rhameses are feeling pressured to sell the company to Greystar, a major label headed by creepy Nick Tashjian (Tony Nardi).

Trying not to give it up to a white-owned conglomerate keeps the Rhameses busy, especially when a writer from The Source shows up, asking questions about Sweetback's poor performance lately. At this point, Grady's posse decides to help out, misunderstanding (or not) his encouragement that as "homeboys," they gotta stick together, have each others' backs. Following an afternoon spent smoking dope in the office, the crew of three heads over to the writer's crib and dangles him off his balcony. Shades of Suge Knight and, oh, Vanilla Ice (who's made something of a living off that dangling story); or maybe it's shades of Puffy, who reportedly delivered a beatdown to Blaze editor Jesse Washington back in 1998.

Either way, the joke ends up being on the tough guys (though it should be noted that the white boy victims of both these assaults come off poorly, too, posing in the business, and afraid when they need to be). Ooops: the dangler loses his grip and drops the writer on his head. He ends up in a cast in the hospital, promising the woulda-been contrite Rhames brothers that he'll never let slip what happened and never print a foul word about the company.

Still, and although Grady's visibly pleased that it's all turned out so well, Jackson doesn't go for the physicality. He wants to be a legitimate businessman, to do the right thing: he's married to a business lawyer, Monica (Lalanya Masters), and more or less looks after his NYU-attending little sister Jade (Davetta Sherwood). But the right thing doesn't always present itself in his world. And so, when he hears that Versis has been involved in a club shooting, with Jade along for the ride that night, Jax has trouble keeping his perspective. (This would be shades of P. Diddy, since acquitted for a 2000 club shooting, for which his artist Shyne is doing time, and after which J. Lo left him.) Lucky for Jax, Grady helps him to see what's really at stake, when they learn that Nick happened by the police station that night, to bail out and buy cover for both Versis and Jade. Owing anything to Nick is not good.

As if this is all not enough, Jackson has one more piled on problem in the early episodes. T-Ron (Ricardo Betancourt), a onetime aspiring rapper and Jackson's friend from back in the day, shows up to picket Sweetback, along with Alderman Ray (Walter Burden), an Al Sharpton type, complete with bullhorn, a speech about the definition of "niggers," and a tendency to extort cash money when he can; here he calls the Rhames brothers "evilish," which, yes, sounds rather like MJ's recent complaint that Tommy Mottola is "devilish," suggesting that Platinum sees fair game everywhere.

This target range includes the ever-difficult topic of black men with white women, especially when the men have made some money. Is it a sign of selling out to sleep with white girls? Is it a sign of giving over to the mainstream, white system of values? "How come every time a brother hits a white chick," asks one successful artist who has a white girl in his house, "Everybody's like: 'Yo, he sold out, he's gone snow blind'? But I'm thinkin' hittin' is just a part of playing whitey's game. You know, from slavery to Tiger Woods, that's just a white man fear for what a brother's gonna do. Brother's gonna get his. What's the most precious thing Whitey's got? His woman, right? Hit the man's woman. Ain't that uplifting the race? Ain't that bringin' us to the next level? Think about it." (Translation: women = property.) On hearing this discourse, Jackson and Grady agree to seduce the rapper, then shake their heads behind his back. Property's everywhere, and available for the buying.

In this and other instances, Platinum offers cagey, borderline obnoxious assessments of how worlds work -- the hip-hop world, the male self-loving world, the legal and the commercial worlds (and it goes at it in a more incisive way than, say, the movie version of Undercover Brother, which is exasperatingly diluted fro the comic strip). If the show wisely avoids trying to be "authentic," it has other ideas to engage.

For example, it is visibly aware of its derivations and debts. Signs of clever biting and self-conscious surfeit are everywhere, in the plotting certainly, but also in the freeze frames, fast cuts, and smart compositions concocted by director Kevin Bray (who directed All About the Benjamins, the Ice Cube movie, not the Puffy video). If the executives and artists are suddenly, first-generationally, filthy rich, they don't handle their newfound clout or their cash much differently than did previous gangsters, from Al Capone to the Corleones (Francis Ford Coppola, by the way, is another of the series' executive producers, and Sofia, also wife of Spike Jonze, well-acquainted with hip-hop video-making, is co-creator, with Ridley). They spend unwisely, party wildly, front perpetually, and assume they have far more insight and talent than they do, especially when it comes to managing their daily lives and, perhaps more importantly, their careers.

Such decadence and acting out are surely not specific to hip-hop. But the show is under fire for its representations of that culture (as if said culture can be reduced to a singular designation), with a boycott of UPN and the series announced by Project Islamic H.O.P.E. Adisa Banjoko, the organization's North California Director, tells that the show doesn't show "all" that it might about hip-hop. If the makers were interested in a more complete depiction, they would "profile the DJ forced to play garbage music by his program director who is getting kickbacks by the label. They'd show you the hip-hop journalist who can't pay rent but still writes about hip-hop because he loves documenting the culture. Now that is real hip-hop drama."

To ask a single show to represent every aspect of a culture is probably too much, but the point is well taken, that Platinum, as its name implies, is focused on the big-stakes aspects, the costs of making money and leaving behind a belief in a culture, as a means of activist, collective, and creative expression. Hip-hop is a business in Platinum, an occasion for family drama and hijinks. As such, it's mostly familiar to viewers who don't know much about hip-hop, and occasionally frustrating for those who do.

Surely, the characters and situations are broadly drawn, and hardly representative of the culture or the people dedicated to hip-hop, they do recall and send up the insanity and crazy hype that drives the business, not just hip-hop, but music generally. Granted, violence, like beatdowns and shootings, is reported sensationally, and tied to hip-hop per se, as opposed, for instance, to involved authorities, as in the Biggie Smalls murder. And a "black" show, much like a "Latino" show, will be assumed to represent the race in ways that white shows are not. That said, the specificity of the protest speaks to the increased clout of hip-hop -- that it is a recognizable political, artistic movement, not just a business. And while hip-hop continues to accumulate force and focus to speak more truth to power, it is good, really, to see N'Bushe Wright.

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