Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hip-Hop: Beyond Violence, Misogyny & Homophobia

So, the InstaRapFlix series is now dead. It had a good run of 35 entries. But now that Netflix's streaming movies are no longer free to watch, the fun and concept of the series has been defeated. But that doesn't mean I won't be reviewing any more hip-hop docs! I've always done non-Insta reviews alongside that little series, and they will be continuing as of... right now.
Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes is a short (approximately 1 hour), 2006 documentary by independent filmmaker Byron Hurt. As far as I know, he hasn't done anything else, but I bring him up first because he brings himself up first. This film is ostensibly about the issues of violence, misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop; but it's really about Byron dealing with hip-hop's issues with violence, misogyny and homophobia.

On the one hand, this is effective because it personalizes the subject matter: how does this imagery affect a listener on an individual basis? But on the other hand, it feels pretty self-indulgent - for instance, while he does attach it to his themes of masculinity, I can't help feeling like we're shown footage of him playing college football because he wants to show people he played college football. There are points in the film where I just couldn't help feeling, "who cares about you?" He just seems to spend more time - in an already short film - giving us his own back-story and feelings than delving into the more universal aspects, artist interviews, etc. Until the end, where he surprisingly drops that angle, leaving the film feeling a bit unresolved... except fortunately, we don't care anyway, so it's not a disappointment.

But it also manages to come with some surprising insight - how many treatises on misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop are insightful enough to draw its roots back all the way to the 1946-1963* construction of the Cross-Bronx expressway? One particularly compelling segment at BET's summer festival, starts with J-Hood pointing out some nearby, under-dressed women and calling them "bitches." Then Hurt calls those women right over and asks them how they felt about being called bitches. At that point, I really feel like the filmmaker's getting stuck deep into the topic.

And there are a few other compelling moments like that, where you get the sense, okay, now the we're dealing with a substantive film here, that's touching on some real issues. There's a scene where he interviews three transsexual women who confess that misogyny in hip-hop turns them on "because it's so aggressive." There's another where Busta Rhymes seems genuinely afraid to discuss homophobia and high-tails it out of the room when asked about the possibility of a gay rapper being accepted in the hip-hop community. And hearing a Def Jam executive speak with disdain and disappointment about Public Enemy's producers going over to produce Ice Cube's album was certainly eyebrow raising.

But these moments are few and far between, accomplishing a unique feat of making this film feel both way too short and way too long at the same time. Too short because we feel like he's just beginning to get to the heart of some deep matters when he moves on, ending the interview or just changing the subject. And too long because this film feels padded out with a lot generic interviews repetitively stating the obvious or expressing the most bland and common opinions.

It's really a shame that InstaRapFlix is dead, because this would have been perfect for it - a 60 minute movie with about fifteen to twenty minutes of meat, and the rest filler. Worth watching for free, but hard to justify paying $20-$25 to purchase on DVD. But if you have got that extra dough to spend, it has been released through PBS' Independent Lens documentary series and is available here.

*Well, those are the dates this film gives.

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