by David Cornelius
No form of popular music has ever been as polarized as rap. On one hand, you’ve got vacant party music, shallow beats that warn us of the dangers of Funky Cold Medina, request that we get jiggy and/or lean back, inform us of our inability to “touch this.” On the other hand, you’ve got highly intelligent, heavily politicized, deeply significant works of activism. It’s a schizophrenic genre, one that currently favors the empty-headed bling-and-party side of things.Thomas Gibson’s “Letter To the President” asks that we forget the current trends and look at the deeper side of hip-hop. This is a genre, the film reminds us, driven in part by anger and a need to speak out against injustice.
"Fighting the Power 101."
The film, narrated by Snoop Dogg in his typical laid-back style, provides an in-depth history of hip-hop in relation to activism, from Grandmaster Flash’s landmark “The Message” through the works of today’s less party-centric rappers. Along the way, we get a harsh indictment of governmental policies that have helped create, perpetuate, and ultimately ignore the ghetto life.
As a serious political documentary, the film has more than its share of flaws. While it’s great to see politicians (especially one as revered as Ronald Reagan) called out on their apathy for the poor, Gibson (a former producer for BET and E!, now making his feature debut) allows many interviewees to make claims without ever properly following up. There’s an entire section in which rappers and commentators discuss the involvement of government agencies in introducing drugs into slums, yet, aside from facts relating to Oliver North and the Iran-Contra scandal, nothing here moves beyond the realm of hearsay. Gibson makes no effort into investigative journalism; here, if somebody says it happened, that’s good enough for the movie.
Which is not to say it didn’t happen. But come on. You can’t make outrageous claims along the lines of “the CIA brought crack into the hood in order to keep blacks down” without bothering to dig a little in an attempt to back it up. Where are the facts? Where’s the proof?
Things also get sloppy when Gibson tosses numbers at us. In the hopes of underlining his case about race problems in America, we’re handed statistic after statistic about the unfairness of things. I don’t deny any of these, yet in terms of a solid argument and a workable documentary film, sometimes the numbers fail Gibson. Example: stats inform us that blacks make up 20% of the military. And then another stat informs us that of all the soldiers killed in Iraq, 19.4% of them were black. I see Gibson’s point, that the military relies too much on the poorer segments of our population, and considering how badly things are being run in this war, the result is that too many black men are dying. But look at those two numbers. If 80% of the soldiers dying were black, out of a 20% population, that would be unusual. But for the ratio of black-to-other dead soldiers to be pretty much the exact same as the black-to-other live ones? It’s a sloppy, poorly planned argument that would only work on those viewers who aren’t really paying any attention.
There’s plenty of other sloppiness to be found here; Gibson is sorely lacking in filmmaking skills. (Hell, the closing credits end a minute and a half before the song playing over them does, leaving a long expanse of blank screen. Shoddy work.) But while “Letter” doesn’t quite work as a movie, it soars as an on-the-cheap lesson in modern history.
The best moments come in the film’s examination of the 1980s, with the rise of rap, the ignorance of the White House, the decline of the economy, and the introduction of crack. It’s here the movie works its magic, with scholars and artists alike explaining how hip-hop got a foothold in the culture. Gibson’s lack of focus works for the movie’s advantage here, as the bouncing from key moment to key moment feels less slipshod and more educational. So much to cover, so little time in which to cover it.
Following the coverage of the early 90s trend of gangsta rap and the political fallout that came with it, the movie starts to grasp for anything worth mentioning. By the mid 90s, too much of hip-hop had lost its soul, with the trend swinging back to the shallow end of the pool. Thankfully, Gibson is not above lambasting the modern music scene for its lack of political interest. “Hip-hop is getting dumber and dumber,” one interviewee reminds us, and with the Bush administration eager to return to the apathy of the Reagan years, it’s a shame that most rappers, now having sold out, are slow to take a stand.This second half, which analyzes the modern hip-hop world, is too unfocused to make for great filmmaking. But there are still some involving arguments to be found here, and besides, the movie’s first half, with its giddy reminders of the golden age of rap, packs in so much that it’s worth the time. And hey, what’s not to love about a movie that features both Larry Flynt making fun of Bill O’Reilly and a professor of humanities quoting Biggie?
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originally posted: 06/29/05 02:05:58