Saturday, June 1, 2013

Hip-Hop In Great Films: Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is easily on the short list of greatest documentary filmmakers of all time... Errol Morris, The Maysles Brothers, Louis Malle, Werner Herzog (maybe the latter aren't generally considered documentary filmmakers, since they've done so many narrative films that tend to be better known, but they've both also made some fantastic docs). Wiseman stands easily right alongside them, a staple of documentary filmmaking since his controversial debut, Titticut Follies, in 1967. In some ways, his style is very "cinéma vérité"... there's no narration, graphics or formal structure  He has an amazing ability to to get candid footage, observing people and discovering surprisingly affecting moments in everyday life. His camera lingers - his films have been known to run over 6 hours long! - with long static shots of human behavior often in places you can't believe anybody would let a documentary filmmaker in to shoot. And he's been making documentaries steadily since his first, visiting all different locales and institutions, as recently as 2011's Crazy Horse.

And with all that filming in all different parts of the world and social strata over the decades, it's only natural that some hip-hop would leak its way in. It's pretty rare, though - I suspect he's really not a fan - but it does happen in the occasional film.

It happens in a very minor way in 1990's Central Park. A 176 minute film centered entirely in an exterior NYC location? It would be impossible for it not to. But it's surprisingly repressed. Weddings, rallies, late-night clean-up crews, (non-hip-hop) concerts, even private meetings of the park's council in their own homes. There's a fun, short roller-skating scene where they';re rolling to Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid," But for actual hip-hop, you only really hear it in snippets of radios playing in the background... super short clips of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock's "It Takes Two" and Run DMC's "Run's House." And most substantially, around the hour and ten minutes mark, there's a cool montage of park activity set to Doug E Fresh's "Keep Rising To the Top."

But I almost throw Central Park in there just to be completist. Of the three, only the Doug E Fresh clip really even lasts long enough to make much of an impression. But hip-hop plays a bigger role in these next two films.

1986's Blind takes place entirely within The Alabama School for Blind and Deaf in Talladega, Alabama. It's a really deep and moving look at the aspects of blind children (including a couple of the cutest little kids pretty much any movie ever!). But 1985, Alabama - and a school for the blind at that - isn't exactly a place you'd expect to stumble upon any hip-hop. But yet it occurs quite naturally. It's Halloween time towards the end of the film, and the kids (who don't just attend the school in the daytime, by the way, but live there), are given a big costume party. It's a long, substantial scene, and during the entire time, they're dancing to Newcleus's "Jam On It." In a cleared cafeteria, little kids are attempting break-dancing and there's a DJ calling out over the record for everyone to get on the floor, etc. It goes on for several minutes, and then you think they're starting to transition out when they start showing close-ups of decorations and things; but then it comes right back to the party for Chilly B's verse. We get almost the entire song... taken out of context, it could practically be a music video for it.
There are even subtle narratives to be found on repeat watches if you pay careful attention... Early in the scene, we see a girl sitting at a table crying and a boy attempting to comfort her. Then, right near the end, we see the girl out dancing on the floor with that same boy.

And the Wiseman film that hip-hop plays the biggest part in is easily Public Housing. Focusing entirely on the Ida B. Wells Housing Development in Chicago in 1996. It's one of his most compelling films, exploring the aspects of life that film almost never looks at. And like Central Park, hip-hop is always surrounding the film, always ready to seep into the background soundtrack of its inhabitants daily life. There's a moment where they're having a small block party, with their boombox facing out the window, and somebody off-camera comments, "that's real music, not that electronic shit." But for all its little cameos, hip-hop stands out particularly in two scenes.

Spot the Rap-A-Lot t-shirt!
The first is a very incongruous moment. He's filming inside the hair salon, everybody's cheerful. If you're expecting a one-note "look at the terrible poverty" film; you'll be surprised at Wiseman's richer and more truthful work.  But to add another layer to it all, everybody's activity is all set to the music playing in their store, an extremely violent Spice 1 song (specifically "Born II Die," perhaps appropriately from the Tales From the Hood soundtrack), declaring, "I can't be fucked in this game; I'ma psychopath. My AK told me to shove him up some nigga's ass!" Most of you can probably imagine how your mothers, grandmothers or whoever would react if that popped on in their hair salon. And no, this wasn't a business full of teens. But this was Spice 1's audience, and heads were nodding, the mood was unbroken.

And the next moment is hip-hop's largest moment in a Wiseman film, and yet we don't actually hear any. Towards the end of Public Housing, there's a huge gathering outside. All the kids and half the adults are packed together, caught up in the excitement of a music video shoot that's come to be filmed in their projects. We basically never see the artist, and we never hear a note of the song. Just the crew in Berry Juice Records t-shirts trying to focus the excitement of the large crowd, a young man up above the fray on his camera mount, a young woman giving orders over a walkie-talkie. I've tracked down the song, and it turns out it's "A Better Day" by an obscure Chicago artist named Da Criminal, though you'd think he was a big time major label artist based on the scene in the film. But the film isn't interested in the rapper or the song; it's about the community and how this hip-hop event has changed their lives, at least for this one day.

These and almost all of Wiseman's other films (The Garden has been censored and nobody seems to care enough about Seraphita's Diary to release it) can be purchased direct from Wiseman's film company's website:  I recommend them all, especially his early and mid-90's work, and not just the films with rap scenes.  :)


  1. Very interesting piece. Need to catch up on my cinema verite. Ever seen Jørgen Leths 66 scenes from America? Has a short verite/plateau scene w two homeboys playing Kurtis Blow in a hotel elevator. Great film.

    1. Just a short scene but similar to the ones you mention. Available as part of The Jørgen Leth Collection dvd box part ? Should be on Amazon.