Straight Outta Compton‘s success has stunned the industry as a whole. Its $60 million opening weekend defied all predictions and dethroned Mission: Impossible at the top of the box office. A wave of industry pros were left scratching their heads and rethinking what the winning formula of a summer blockbuster can be made of. Compton is 150 minutes long, has a mostly black cast and an R rating. Perhaps summer blockbusters can be more diverse than we previously thought?
This wasn’t the first time a hip-hop themed movie became a blockbuster of this magnitude: 8 Mile had a 51 million dollar opening weekend back in the fall of 2002. But for the most part, hip-hop themed movies have generally been more of a niche affair. Critics haven’t been any kinder, but there are exceptions: Here are ten movies that have justly been hailed as breakthroughs in the hip-hop filmmaking.
8 Mile (2002)
In 2002, Eminem sought to make a movie loosely based on his life. He was just coming off the whirlwind of The Marshall Matters LP and was the most popular hip-hop star in the world. He got L.A Confidential and Wonder Boys director Curtis Hanson to bring realism and grittiness to the movie. The film stars Eminem as Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr., an aspiring rapper whose life reflects that of the man playing him. Growing up, Marshall “Eminem” Mathers didn’t have the easiest life, and neither does Rabbit.
Living in inner city Detroit with the dream of one day becoming a well-known rapper, Rabbit has to deal with issues such as an alcoholic mother on welfare (Kim Basinger), her abusive live-in boyfriend (Michael Shannon) and being a white rapper in a field dominated by black artists. The movie justified the hype and the rapper himself proved his worth as an actor. The rap battle that closes the movie is the clear highlight and showcases just how poetic and musical the genre can be.
Christopher Wallace, AKA The Notorious B.I.G, was known to have the best flow of any rapper. His mainstream success has lived on past his death and into the realm of legendary status. In 2009’s Notorious, a rags to riches story, his life is fully and comprehensively depicted, from his early days as a drug dealer, to his stardom days as Biggie, and all the way to his tragic murder, which has not been solved to this day.
The unknown Jamal Woolard was cast as the late rapper, which raised some eyebrows. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else capturing Wallace’s physicality and charisma. When Woolard lays his flow down in the recording studio and says “it’s all good, baby, bay-bee, uh” you know no one else could have played him. Director George Tillman Jr. stuffed so much of Biggie’s life into the film’s 123 minute running time that it sometimes feels rushed, but the overall effect is staggering.
Biggie & Tupac (2002)
Tupac had the lyrics and Biggie had the flow. Biggie & Tupac, directed by documentarian extraordinaire Nick Broomfield, has an abundance of rich material to work with. The story of Biggie and Tupac’s rise as friends and fall as sworn enemies is the material that Shakespeare would have died to write about if he had lived in the 21st century.
Broomfield doesn’t shy away from anything regarding the story, with a clear condemnation of the way the LAPD handled the case of both artists. The East Coast/West Coast rivalry is given a lot of attention, but so are particular suspects. The highlight is a behind-the-bars interview with Suge Knight, the head of Death Row Records, who some suspect played a role in the murders of both artists.
Hustle & Flow (2005)
“It’s hard out here for a pimp” is the catchy phrase from this movie’s Oscar winning song by Three 6 Mafia. That perfectly describes Hustle and Flow‘s Memphis hustler DJay (Terrence Howard), an unhappy pimp who wants to make it big in hip-hop. He brings on a high school friend for sound mixing, his pregnant girlfriend (and prostitute) Shug (Taraji P. Henson, who later reunited with Howard on the TV hip-hop saga Empire) for backup vocals and records indelibly catchy songs such as the aforementioned “Hard out here for a Pimp” and “Whoop That Trick,” all in the hope of selling them to a local rapper (Ludacris) who made it big.
Artfully directed by Craig Brewer, the film features an intense Oscar-nominated performance from the underrated Terrence Howard as a man so sick of his life that he’d lie, cheat, and steal just to get out.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)
This film features an irresistibly upbeat block party that you just wish you were a part of. In the summer of 2004, Dave Chappelle decided to throw a surprise block party in a Brooklyn neighborhood. It featured some of the biggest names in hip-hop, soul and RnB: Kanye, Mos Def, John Legend, and even a reunion of The Fugees, who have been feuding pretty much non-stop for the past decade and a half. Chappelle also hired wizard filmmaker Michel Gondry, fresh off his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind triumph.
The result? An infectiously surreal fiesta that had the whole block bouncing to the best beats the genres had to offer. Gondry shot the whole thing with an abundance of colors and the flair he learned from a career in music videos. The clear highlight is Chappelle interviewing the neighbourhood people stunned at what was happening in their own backyard, but wait until you see Kanye West with a marching band showcasing his ego in brilliant glory.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Eazy-E, Dr.Dre and Ice Cube epitomized gangsta rap in the late ’80s as the West Coast gangsta rap group NWA. They brought it to the centerfold of the American conversation with songs such as “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Boyz-n-the-Hood”. In this summer’s surprise hit movie, Straight Outta Compton, their story is told with such in-your-face vigor and bravado that it almost feels like a gangsta rap companion piece to Goodfellas.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, who directed some of Ice Cube’s most famous ‘90s music videos, the film recounts the day when the trio we’re the talk of the nation, eluding questions about police brutality and black poverty. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was the founder, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s son) was the lyricist and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) had the sick beats that nobody could touch. They eventually all went their separate ways, but not without making a mark in music forever. The centerpiece of the film is a concert in Detroit where the group is threatened by Detroit Police not to play “F*** Tha Police” under threat of arrest. Guess what they do?
Following a fictional rap group named CB4, a broad parody of NWA, this movie is the hip-hop equivalent to This is Spinal Tap. You might as well call it Spinal Rap. The rise to fame of a bunch of unknown musicians, namely MC Gusto (Chris Rock, stealing Eazy-E’s swagger in an early role), Stab Master Arson (Deezer D) and Dead Mike (Allen Payne), the film shows us how circumstance and coincidence can really make anyone popular in the music industry.
The group has no flair and no street cred to back up the gangsta rap music they make, and almost solely stumbled upon fame through a lucky case of mistaken identity. The movie features some of Chris Rock’s best gags ever and an abundance of star cameos from rappers such as Ice-T, Ice Cube, Flava Flav and Eazy-E.
Wild Style (1983)
Regarded by many as being the first hip-hop movie, Wild Style is a landmark film whose connections to hip-hop are undeniable. That wasn’t the only inventive thing about the movie. Its mix of different genres was seen as being ahead of its time, mashing the narrative musical to the documentary.
It also features artists of the genre playing themselves in a highly improvised story that captures the spirit of hip hop. Grand Master Flash, Fab Five Freddy and even The Cold Crush Brothers make appearances. The film’s artistry was what struck critics the most. The main character Zoro was played by Lee Quinones, a real life legendary graffiti artist. It’s no surprise that Graffiti was very much part of the hip-hop scene back then, as was breakdancing, freestyle MCing and scratch mixing, all prominently featured in key improvised scenes here.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)
The third documentary on the list, this film is about one of the most enduring groups of hip-hop’s golden age: A Tribe Called Quest. Fronted by two unusual but effective MCs, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, they created incredible music in the early 90s that was important in the advancement of hip-hop for the 21st century.
Beats, Rhymes and Life was directed by superfan/actor Michael Rapaport (who also narrates) and retraces their roots and depicts the behind-the-scenes drama that takes place within the group itself. The film is an important document of a band that has never fully gotten their due popularity, but has steadily established a legacy over the years that is significant and undeniable.
Krush Groove (1985)
The beginning of Def Jam records is vibrantly told in this 1985 movie directed by Michael Schultz. Blair Underwood plays Russell Walker, in what is supposed to be a clear, but well interpreted depiction of Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam.
Going by the name of Krush Groove Records in the film, Def Jam solidified many up and coming hip-hop artists to the mainstream and many of them actually make an appearance in the movie: LL Cool J performs “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and Run D.M.C ignite the screen with “My Adidas”. Def Jam fostered some of New York’s finest hop-hop musicians and the movie tries to cram in every achievement possible into its 97 minute running time. The resulting movie has the boisterous energy of an 80’s hip-hop song.
These aren’t the only movies to be influenced by the energy and vitality of hip-hop. Did any of your favorite movies have the flow, rhythm and poetry to make this list ? Let us know in the comments below!
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