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Keeping it Real 

Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes is an independent documentary that tries to explore issues of masculinity in hip-hop culture. It airs for the first time on Fat Tuesday on PBS, with a special free screening in New Orleans. Former college football player-turned-antiviolence educator Byron Hurt talks to a diverse cast of characters, from twentysomethings at BET's "Spring Bling" weekend in Daytona Beach to bohemian hip-hop artists Talib Kweli and De La Soul.

Most of the 50-minute movie is spent exploring problematic issues in male identity that are pretty much universal: the overvaluation of toughness and strength begetting violence and emotional shutdown, misogyny and homophobia. Interviews with both well-known rappers and kids on the street are sometimes eye-opening and sometimes unintentionally hilarious (or both at once), like the platinum-selling hip-hop artist Jadakiss looking away from the camera like a child caught misbehaving and muttering, "If this s**t was bad, Snoop wouldn't have no fans." But the film gets rolling when Hurt gets specific and tough, as when he touches on the fact that 70 percent of hip-hop music is consumed by white men (another unintentionally funny Jadakiss quote: "After you [Sound]scan 700,000 copies, it's all white people. They love it."), and the stickier problem of how a manufactured ideal of black masculinity somehow becomes a twice-divorced-from-reality standard for young white men.

But the most intriguing issue in the film is the sticky wicket of self-awareness among savvy consumers of hip-hop that these images are false, but they're what sells. On a street corner, Hurt asks a crowd of battle rappers if they'd want their sons to be like the images rappers put down in videos and lyrics. The answer is a resounding no. One onlooker explains, "In '87, we all loved Self Destruction [the all-star collaborative anti-violence single]. But you can't go to a label with Self Destruction no more." It's a peek at a really interesting idea that not enough camera time is spent exploring: a self-sabotaging culture complicitly buying a manufactured image that it recognizes as destructive because it sells -- adversely affecting grassroots black communities and lining the pockets of corporate radio and major labels.

Chuck D says, about as plainly as anyone could, that "BET is a cancer on black manhood," perpetrating glamorized stereotypes of gross sexual objectification, black-on-black violence, conspicuous consumption and general pimping and thugging all around.

It's a fine and thoughtful film, but it doesn't blaze any trails that people who already watch independent documentaries on PBS and Sundance will be unfamiliar with. Where the movie really needs to get some airtime is where its subjects eat, on BET or MTV. After Hurt included Chuck D's comments, however, it's unlikely to run on BET anytime soon. 'One Night Only' On the Air Last week, BET premiered its new six-part miniseries "One Night Only," a reality docu-soap that followed students at McDonogh 35 Senior High School through their fall 2006 semester. The focus is the students' production of the musical Dreamgirls (the film version of which just scooped up a Best Picture Golden Globe award and a basketful of Oscar nominations.) The six half-hour episodes will be shown on Tuesdays at 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., with repeats on Saturdays. Because of the BET attention, the students get all the unreal perks of reality TV, like loaned costume pieces from the Hollywood production and choreography help from Tony award-winning stepper Faison, but the filmmakers show an entirely un-reality-TV-like restraint and an even more-un-genre-like awareness of, and respect for, well ... reality. There are plenty of huge gimmes potentially available here, like cast members living in FEMA trailers, or one student performer whose family's Katrina-related financial state renders her unable to buy a homecoming dance dress until her stage manager steps in to front the money. Most shows would take this one drama and cut it into a walloping Very Special Episode, but for the most part, the camera stays close and quiet, letting the larger Katrina narrative unfold itself subtly through the overt telling of the students' own stories.

The young cast, most of whom perform in school or church choirs but haven't acted before, is overwhelming, with both talent and positive attitudes (that last being an astounding shift from most reality TV participants, who take the camera as an excuse to turn into unholy brats). In interviews about their characters, two actresses talk about finding inspiration through their characters' strength and determination to live their dreams.

Ultimately, it's a sock in the face to pessimists everywhere that such a bizarre and tragic combination of trends and events (Hurricane Katrina plus reality television plus Dreamgirls itself, which has a story and songs that are thin, unsuccessful attempts at funneling the electric Motown sound through Broadway's overly enunciated belting style) culminated in the most intimate, human, poignant and most of all accurate portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans seen so far on national TV.

click to enlarge Beyond Beats and Rhymes looks at the culture behind hip- - hop's public images.
  • Beyond Beats and Rhymes looks at the culture behind hip- hop's public images.


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