Hip Hop Gets Outed
One problem with festivals like the generally admirable and increasingly successful Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival (which starts this Thursday) is that, because they demand a great deal of content that fits a very specific criteria and because they fear looking too commercial, a good deal of the films on offer are unwatchable. It’s one thing to produce a film on a shoestring, but it is another to value anti-mainstream, indie cred so much that a filmmaker doesn’t give any consideration to lighting, sound capture or decent editing.
Take William E. Jones’ Is It Really So Strange? for example. Here we have an incredibly interesting subject: apparently, the Mexican immigrant sons and daughters of East Los Angeles are huge Morrissey fans. Why gay and straight working-class Latino youths would gravitate to the preening, melancholic Smiths front man is a very interesting question. Jones sits the youth in question down and asks them about the first time they heard “Big Mouth Strikes Again” and “Ask” and they reply. Unfortunately, what we hear are largely inarticulate answers, heinously rendered (is he shooting on my grandmother’s handycam?). I would have preferred to be taken into the world where Morrisey’s music affects these people in a visceral way. But where there should be live footage, we have a slide show of photographs. The film skulks along at a drunken snail’s pace, and by the time the filmmakers finally get around to interviewingmembers of the Morrisey tribute band The Sweet and Tender Hooligans, I was already ready to walk out. In the hands of a better documentarian, this could be an interesting, engaging film. In Jones‚ it’s virtually impossible to watch.
Pick up the Mic is a welcome tonic. This doc, directed by Alex Hinton (see his blog at www.pickupthemic.com/blog/) explores the beginnings and subsequent growth of what is known as “homohop.” Unlike Is It Really So Strange?, Hinton’s doc finds its story and its characters and threads performance through its various interview sequences, bringing us into the lives of rappers still struggling inside a highly misogynistic and homophobic genre. As trans-rapper Katastrophe points out early on in the film, “Rap is carnal. It’s about the basest things in human nature. That’s why people won’t let it be gay.”
Homohop got its start in the home of conscious hip-hop—California’s Greater Bay Area. Its isolated pioneers—people like zinesmith and activist rapper Dutch Boy and Oakland’s soulful Deep Dickcollective (featuring Juba Kalamka) came together in the late 1990s. Kids who had grown up with hip-hop but suddenly found themselves bobbing their heads to blatantly homophobic rhymes, along with artists who had been rapping for years before coming out of the closet, collectively sought out a community and music of their own. That community is now a wondrously diverse thing to behold: Deep Dickcollective has welcomed a trans-rapper into its ranks and a recent festival saw the participation of Britain’s Q-Boy and Detroit’s Aggracyst, homohop’s tubby and abbrasive equivalent to Eminem. Sure, not all of the MC-ing is outstanding. But enough of it is sufficiently decent to hold your interest.
The best scene in the film comes when Deep Dickcollective’s Tim’m comes to New York City to give a performance. As he walks the street with a camera in tow, the MC and spoken word artist is followed by a young aspiring banger and rap battler who assumes that he must be a star. Ultimately, the two end up sitting and exchanging rhymes on a pier. They both approach the art from entirely different angles, but battle as any other young rappers would.
If only some of the editing were cleaned up, Pick up the Mic could potentially find wide release. Here’s hoping that the director can find someone who’s interested in helping this little film break out of the LGBT fest ghetto and into the mainstream. God knows modern hip hop could use a shot in the arm.
For more reviews of films appearing at Inside Out, keep checking this space.
Is it Really so Strange screens at the Royal Ontario Museum on Mon, May 22 at 12:15 p.m.
Pick up the Mic screens at the ROM on Friday May 19 at 7:30 p.m.
For a complete list of films at the 16th Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival, go to