NYC Happenings: "Set It Off: LA Hip-Hop On Film" Revisits 90s West Coast Rap In The Wake Of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
NYC Happenings: "Set It Off: LA Hip-Hop On Film" Revisits 90s West Coast Rap In The Wake Of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
As F. Gary Gray's NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton tops the US box office charts for the third straight week -- you can read my review here -- those who enjoyed that film may want to see other films in that milieu, either to extend the nostalgia trip, or to explore further, for those who weren't around to witness the rise of NWA and "gangster rap."

Well, if that's what you're in the mood for, BAMcinĂ©matek's got you covered this Labor Day weekend. Their film series "Set It Off: LA Hip-Hop on Film," screening at BAM Rose Cinemas from September 4-8, revisits the films of the early 90's that capitalized on the popularity of the exciting and controversial genre of West Coast hip-hop, in which the likes of NWA, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Death Row Records, and other artists were ubiquitous on both the music charts and movie screens. Even though this initially novel and creatively rich trend in films and music eventually devolved into narrow and constricting stereotypes not dissimilar to the blaxploitation trend of the 70s, many talented filmmakers and actors - as well as musicians turned actors - delivered some impressive work during this period.

One phenomenon that this film series charts is the emergence of former NWA member Ice Cube as a major movie star. Just as Cube's son O'Shea Jackson, Jr. made a great impression this year in Straight Outta Compton (playing his own father), so did Ice Cube himself in his film debut, John Singleton's 1991 Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood (screening September 5). 

From the moment he appeared on the screen, he was a natural, seamlessly transferring the charisma he demonstrated in music to the film medium. In Boyz n the Hood, though he plays a character who is involved in criminal behavior, he is no stereotypical thug; he is a much more nuanced and complex character than that. Cube's performance, and the film itself, makes very clear how his actions are inextricably tied to the environment he was raised in, in which societal and governmental neglect conspires to make crime, murder, and thuggery seemingly the only viable options for survival. The great tragedy of the film is that even those who attempt to escape this murderous milieu end up becoming victims of that same environment.

Ice Cube also showed his range in F. Gary Gray's 1995 debut Friday (screening September 4), a classic stoner comedy in the tradition of Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke, which Cube co-wrote (and which is referenced in Straight Outta Compton). This free-wheeling, almost plotless film is rich with off-kilter humor and inventive filmmaking, and also introduced audiences to the great comic talents of co-star Chris Tucker.

Cube also stars in The Glass Shield (1994; screens September 8), the great and criminally underseen crime drama by veteran LA-based filmmaker Charles Burnett. This film, which explores the racism rife in the LAPD, was greatly mistreated by its distributor Miramax, which imposed changes based on test screenings, and refused it proper marketing and promotion. Still, what emerged is a fine film that deserves to be rediscovered.

Other great highlights of this series are: F. Gary Gray's heist movie Set It Off, the urban dramas Menace II Society (the Hughes Brothers debut) and South Central, as well as Singleton's Boyz n the Hood follow-up Poetic Justice, featuring Janet Jackson and another talented musician turned actor, Tupac Shakur.

More details on the series, including the full schedule, is below. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit BAM's website.

From Friday, September 4, through Tuesday, September 8, BAMcinématek presents Set It Off: LA Hip-Hop on Film, a seven-film tribute to the glory days of West Coast rap on the heels of the release of F. Gary Gray's N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. Hip-hop may have been born on the East Coast, but it was the West that dominated the early 90s with the emergence of gangsta rap, Death Row Records, and Tupac, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. From straight outta Compton to the top of the charts, these movies feature the music and artists that put the LA scene on the map.

Opening the series is F. Gary Gray's debut feature Friday (1995--Sep 4; appropriately on a Friday), in which two friends (Ice Cube and Chris Tucker) go from smoking on the stoop to scrambling for cash when a drug dealer comes calling for his $200. Featuring a bevy of West Coast hip-hop from Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, Mack 10, and Cube, who also produced and co-wrote the film, the soundtrack soared to the top of the charts and helped make Friday a stoner comedy classic, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Gray's follow-up Set It Off (1996--Sep 6) follows four down-on-their-luck women (played by Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise) who perform a series of Los Angeles bank robberies to better their families' lives. Acclaimed for its mix of action and gritty realism, the film also sparked a double platinum soundtrack with Latifah, En Vogue, Busta Rhymes, Brandy, and more. Also screening are two films by John Singleton: the Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood (1991--Sep 5), a "brilliant directorial debut...and an American film of enormous importance" (Roger Ebert) chronicling three friends (Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, and Ice Cube in his film debut) coming of age in South Central LA; and Poetic Justice (1993--Sep 7), starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur and boasting a soundtrack with Tupac, TLC, Babyface, and Usher.

Other highlights include Charles Burnett's powerful indictment of racism in the LAPD, The Glass Shield (1994--Sep 8); Stephen Milburn Anderson's "profoundly moving" (Variety) gang drama South Central (1992--Sep 7); and the first film by music video directors Allen and Albert Hughes, Menace II Society (1993--Sep 6), set to the sounds of Too Short, Spice 1, MC Eiht, and more.


Fri, Sep 4
2, 4:30, 7, 9:30pm: Friday

Sat, Sep 5
2, 4:30, 7, 9:30pm: Boyz n the Hood

Sun, Sep 6
2, 6:50pm: Set It Off
4:40, 9:40pm: Menace II Society

Mon, Sep 7
2, 6:45pm: Poetic Justice
4:30, 9:15pm: South Central

Tue, Sep 8
4:30, 7, 9:30pm: The Glass Shield

Film Descriptions
All films in 35mm unless otherwise noted.

Boyz n the Hood (1991) 112min
Directed by John Singleton. With Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne.
The granddaddy of 90s life-in-the-hood sagas still packs a punch. It charts the diverging fates of three friends--including rapper Ice Cube making a big impression in his film debut--coming of age in the urban warzone of South Central LA. First-time filmmaker John Singleton earned Oscar nominations for directing and writing this explosive drama, which features music by Ice Cube, 2 Live Crew, and Run-D.M.C. DCP.
Sat, Sep 5 at 2, 4:30, 7, 9:30pm

Friday (1995) 91min
Directed by F. Gary Gray. With Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Nia Long.
Buddies Craig (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker) share a joint on a South Central porch, only to have their buzz harshed by the menacing drug dealer who wants his $200--or else. Ice Cube and DJ Pooh co-wrote this freewheeling, Cheech and Chong-in-the-hood-style stoner comedy classic, which boasts a soundtrack featuring Cube, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, 2 Live Crew, Bootsy Collins, and more.
Fri, Sep 4 at 2, 4:30, 7, 9:30pm

The Glass Shield (1994) 109min
Directed by Charles Burnett. With Michael Boatman, Lori Petty, Ice Cube.
Charles Burnett's powerful police drama follows an African-American rookie cop (Boatman) who confronts racism and corruption within the LAPD when a black man (Ice Cube) is framed for murder. After the critical successes of poetic works like Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield finds Burnett tackling loaded political issues within the framework of a neo-noir thriller.
Tue, Sep 8 at 4:30, 7, 9:30pm

Menace II Society (1993) 97min
Directed by Allen Hughes & Albert Hughes. With Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate.
This stunning, unflinching look at life in inner-city Watts follows a young hustler (Turner) trying to escape the cycle of gangs, drugs, and death that surrounds him. The first film from former music video directors the Hughes brothers explodes with bravura visual style, visceral violence, and a West Coast rap soundtrack. Look for Samuel L. Jackson in a chillingly cold-blooded cameo.
Sun, Sep 6 at 4:40, 9:40pm

Poetic Justice (1993) 109min
Directed by John Singleton. With Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Regina King.
The director of Boyz n the Hood crafts another South Central story, this time from a female perspective. Janet Jackson stars as a poet mourning the gang-related death of her boyfriend, who finds new love with a postal worker (Tupac) while on a road trip. More sensitive but no less socially-conscious than Boyz, Poetic Justice features the poetry of Maya Angelou on the soundtrack as well as music by Tupac, TLC, and Usher.
Mon, Sep 7 at 2, 6:45pm

Set It Off (1996) 123min
Directed by F. Gary Gray. With Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox.
Four struggling women stick it to society by pulling a string of bank robberies in this female-powered heist thriller. The action sequences pack an impressive visceral jolt, but Friday director Gray adds a gritty layer of social realism by delving into the circumstances that drive each woman to a life of crime. "Queen Latifah gives a career-making performance" (Variety) as a brash carjacker.
Sun, Sep 6 at 2, 6:50pm

South Central (1992) 99min
Directed by Stephen Milburn Anderson. With Glenn Plummer, Byron Minns, LaRita Shelby.
After emerging from a 10-year prison stint and converting to Islam, a father (Plummer) tries to rescue his son from a similar life of crime. Oliver Stone produced this hard-hitting drama, which takes a serious look at gang culture's circle of violence. The hip-hop, R&B, and soul soundtrack features Scarface, Spectrum City (Chuck D's pre-Public Enemy project), DJ Quik, and more.
Mon, Sep 7 at 4:30, 9:15pm
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F. Gary GrayIce CubeJohn SingletonLA hip-hopStraight Outta ComptonJonathan HermanAndrea BerloffS. Leigh SavidgeAlan WenkusO'Shea Jackson Jr.Corey HawkinsJason MitchellNeil Brown Jr.BiographyCrimeDrama

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