Sunday, June 1, 2008

InstaRapFlix 2: Bling: A Planet Rock

Today I watched Bling: A Planet Rock (Netflix rating: 1 star) a surprisingly effective look at how the "bling culture" of contemporary hip-hop relates to the gruesome civil war over "blood diamonds" in in Sierra Leone (Africa). I picked this one because Big Daddy Kane got high billing, but he and Kanye West (who also gets high billing) are actually only in this for a few seconds in the introduction. Essentially, this film revolves around Raekwon, Paul Wall (appropriate, because he also owns a diamond dealership), some reggae artist named Tego Calderon, and former child soldier turned author, Ishmael Beah. They take a trip to Africa and visit places like amputee camps and womens' shelters to see the origins of the diamonds they wear.

Occasionally, it plays like another junk reality TV show - clips of Rae and Paul Wall talking to the camera at the airport feel like they've been ripped straight off the E! channel. And in general this film would have been better if it spent a little more time examining the situation in Africa and gave a little less camera time to the rappers... but in general, it actually works pretty well.
The people and places they visit are genuinely affecting. The hip-hop angle may at times seem a little forced, but when former soldiers tell Raekwon how his music and videos directly inspired them to kill their fellows for diamonds, the film shows it actually has a point and makes it. Probably the strongest aspect is that the film lets the people they visit - the diggers, victims, soldiers, etc - tell their story without interference.

The film climaxes early when they finally visit the diamond mine and the people who own it. They're allowed their say, Raekwon gets in an argument with one of them, and then... they visit a couple more places that are kind of redundant and less compelling than places they visited earlier in the film. It finally ends with a party, where the people of Sierra Leone are seen in a less downtrodden light then they had been for the rest of the film, and Raekwon performs.

It's not a perfect film by any stretch, but it was compelling for the most part - deeper reaching than you'd expect. You are left wondering afterward, though, what was the point, really... The rappers come off just as dopey and shallow at the end of the film as they do in the beginning; and except for a few moments, they really don't feel like they have any place in a documentary on such a serious issue ("ok, let's cut away from the man who had his hands cut off by rebels so we can see a Paul Wall dicking around with his seatbelt on the bus").

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that the rappers only merit a small part in the film, but are given the lead roles because they're celebrities.

A final point of interest: besides the fact that the filmmakers must like really bad, contrived puns, I think the subtitle A Planet Rock is used because this is a sequel of sorts to a short film with Chuck D called Bling: Consequences and Repercussions. It's described on the IMDB as, "tackl[ing] the issues behind Hip Hop's obsession with diamonds and the continued illegal diamond trade in Africa. Bling looks to further educate the Hip Hop generation about the murder and carnage caused by the world's greed for diamonds." ...Although, looking at the credits for both, none of the filmmakers or producers are the same. Maybe it's just a total rip-off?

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