From the Year of the Woman to the Year of the African American, we are constantly looking to Hollywood for signs of change on the cultural horizon. Maybe in time 2005 will be seen as a watershed year in film for Hip Hop. With Hustle and Flow, Terrence Howard has already shown that, despite it being hard out there for a pimp, there's recognition to be gained from working the game. Up next: Jim Sheridan turns his discerning eye on 50 Cent in Get Rich Or Die Tryin'.
While Hip Hop has been on the big-screen radar for as long as it has existed, an argument could be made that the seeds for the genre's latest renaissance on film harkens back to 2002 when Rick Famuyiwa dropped Brown Sugar, his loving dedication to Hip Hop culture and New York as the birthplace of the movement. Music journalist Sydney (Sanaa Lathan) opened each of her interviews with the question, "When did you first fall in love with Hip Hop?" Through the course of the story, that question became a metaphor for Sydney's discovery of the love of her life, her music-producing best friend (Taye Diggs), who fell in love with her and Hip Hop at the same time.
Hip Hop spawned an indie twin to Brown Sugar in 2002 as well. Unfortunately, it has taken three years for G, the second feature film from Christopher Scott Cherot (Hav Plenty), to earn a distribution deal.
That could have something to do with the far loftier expectations inherent in Cherot's story, which, while loosely based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby, substituted contemporary Hip Hop culture for the allure of the Jazz Age.
Cherot wasn't intentionally aping Fitzgerald, but the idea of Hip Hop in the Hamptons echoes the spirit of the Jazz Age where the ghetto-fabulous mingle with high society. The Jazz Age's hustlers and hooch runners are the forefathers of today's gangstas and playas.
"Hip Hop in the Hamptons was a real thing, and since we shot the film it has become a more real and legitimate thing," says Cherot.
Yet it should be made perfectly clear that G is not strictly about Hip Hop. "There are three elements there (in the Charles Drew Jr. script)," Cherot says. "There's the Hamptons, romance and Hip Hop, and the trick for me was to try and balance all three of these elements carefully so that one really didn't overshadow the other."
With his ode to Hip Hop, Famuyiwa's approach was more naked in its intentions. Besides familiar romantic leads (Diggs and Lathan), Sugar featured Mos Def and Queen Latifah in supporting roles along with appearances from a host of real-life greats and rising stars in its opening sequence and music from Erykah Badu, Common and Angie Stone. This was in part due to the success of Ice Cube's Barbershop, which though aimed at a Hip Hop audience, became a surprise mainstream hit. Yet Diggs was quick to defend the unique aspects of Sugar, saying, "I hope people come to check this out so that they realize it's not just a formula."
Cherot steered clear of famous names and the obligatory soundtrack fillers from the current flavas of the moment. In hindsight, the decision to go for a more timeless feel removes the typical expiration date applied to most pop cultural projects. The goal was to make sure that 10 or 20 years from now, viewers would buy into the universal themes without getting caught up in a simple nostalgia.
Upon its completion back in 2002, G entered the market on the independent film track in search of a distributor. Hav Plenty had been a modest niche performer, which meant Cherot wasn't a household name. Of G's cast, only Blair Underwood was known. Producer Andrew Lauren, son of fashion mogul Ralph, went into the process intent on securing a theatrical release rather than settling for a cable or straight-to-video deal. Between 2002 and 2003, G screened at several film festivals (Tribeca, Los Angeles, Urbanworld, Toronto and the Pan African) yet failed to solicit the anticipated offer.
Cherot points out, though, that there had been some interest in the film. "I remember Andre Royo (who plays Tre in G) telling me that when he was working on The Wire he had heard HBO executives talking about purchasing G," he says. "One of them had come up to Andre and asked him if he could talk Andrew (Lauren) into letting them buy the film, because he had turned them down."
The hard-line holdout for theatrical release meant hunkering down for a long waiting game, but the film itself doesn't suffer for its extended stay in limbo. Where it will struggle now is in the hearts and minds of moviegoers who will enter theaters with great expectations about Hip Hop and film adaptations. In his opening weekend review of the film, Roger Ebert got bogged down in the surface similarities between Summer G (Richard T. Jones) and P. Diddy, seen as the immediate inspiration for the character. Ebert also admitted to being unable to accept that "a movie has to work as a movie and not be 'faithful' to the book that inspired it." That is a cardinal rule the average ticket buyer might not have as much of an issue with, since it is not likely audiences will be looking for such fidelity to Fitzgerald's classic novel.
G should be appreciated on its own terms. Unfortunately, to do so might require more distance from the ubiquitous nature of Hip Hop culture than the timelessness of great fiction. ©