Turn Back The Hands of Hiphop
Vinyl records are used as souvenirs of childhood in The Wood, linking memories of growing up in the 1980s to contemporary trials of friendship faced by three responsible young men. Reading the record label logos as they spin on a turntable is enough to make those artifacts numinous, to recall the time of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full” and Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit.” Debut director Richard Famuyiwa refers to 80s hiphop the way baby boomer media incessantly refers to 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a refreshing emphasis on the innocence of black youth culture—good enough to reclaim its virtues from the mainstream’s typical, coarse exploitation.
While trafficking in commercial totems, Famuyiwa conveys untrivialized affection for The Wood‘s characters—something that never happens in American Pie, a movie that reduces hiphop’s influence to booty-smacking pantomime and aggressive sex-talk. Famuyiwa concentrates on the behavioral dilemmas faced by three teenage boys in the hood, coexisting with gang-member peers, pretty girls an —most troubling of all—the fantasies of manhood that exaggerate their daily rituals. North Carolina boy Young Mike (Sean Nelson), newly arrived in California, gets befriended by skirt-chasing Young Roland (Trent Cameron) and cagey Young Slim (Duane Finley). He’s duped into pranks, shown local dating customs and supported in familiar adolescent folly (learning to dance, choosing the right breath mint, getting girls’ phone numbers). The characters’ eagerness to grow up seems to be bursting out of their bodies, which they haven’t yet grown into.
This is the crucial period of transition that gets elided by so much of youth pop. It’s catered to more than it’s understood or scrutinized. The Wood only barely resolves this problem—the vinyl records hook recalls tv’s old Happy Days series, which used a similar pop gimmick as a transitional device—but its aim is grand. Famuyiwa tries to reinvestigate the totems of youth for their evidence of natural desire and naive despair (just edging into political limitations and social frustration). Interestingly, his strategy approaches the vaunted experiential reflection found in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway refracting time through hiphop’s grooves and breakbeats.
Famuyiwa’s flashback/DJ narrative structure starts with the trio grown-up. On his wedding day, Roland (Taye Diggs) hides out until Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones) find him and pull him through his particular bachelor panic. The situation isn’t any more profound than the banal middle-class drama of Soul Food, but to perceive only the similarities in the set-up is as much a mistake as confusing one rap record with another. Famuyiwa takes mundane material to heart (almost the way Public Enemy penetrates the social inequities of Black American living that Wu-Tang Clan exploits). Common anxieties of young adult dating, impending marriage and improvised family and friend relations are examined through their initial occurrence via 80s hiphop accompaniment. Juxtaposing the present with the past, Famuyiwa seeks to feel again that special moment when pop culture seemed to speak expressly to one’s personal experience. (And much of hiphop’s wonder—up to the early 90s—was that it seemed to be right there in your head as you first went through perceiving the way the world worked. That’s why it felt revolutionary.)
Going back in time, recasting his three fellas in a new set of younger actors, Famuyiwa wants the era as well as the situations to palpate—through repetition and variation. But primarily he tries for something no one else in the brief, torturous, sell-out, frustrated, ever-hopeful history of hiphop movies has dared: He goes for a psychological connection between adulthood’s urgency and precocious, impatient youth. You know: the privilege that pop media sells to youth as their birthright whether or not they fully appreciate life’s value and consequences. Only maturity can make a difference in how one rectifies desire with compromise; most times it’s a simple matter of reckoning with reality. And through his back and forth between Young Mike having Isaiah Thomas and De La Soul posters on his bedroom wall to the adult Roland’s reunion with a former girlfriend, Famuyiwa seeks a boys-to-men frisson, and nearly gets it.
No doubt Famuyiwa’s Woolfian ambition derives from a sincere commitment to hiphop, an instinct—and willingness—to get more out of it than fashion. His pop instincts are better than his filmmaking skill at this point, which may explain why The Wood gets away with being more fine-grained than the era’s other youth-oriented movies. (It was produced by Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team also responsible for Election, who have so far been able to slip intelligence and feeling into these initial MTV Films ventures.) It seems as if Famuyiwa shrewdly follows a significant pop-movie model, then backs its story up with a superior (slightly veiled) influence.
The Wood responds to John Singleton’s 1991 Boyz N the Hood, showing the experiences of three hoodrats in the period after Singleton’s battlezone drama. The lead musical track, Ahmad’s “Back in the Day,” works as a piece of sequential nostalgia, recalling adolescence but also pinpointing the less-sensational life after wartime. (Experiences Hollywood ignored as noncommercial.) Famuyiwa reminisces about the plain-faced details of ghetto experience that still hold up in Boyz N the Hood—not the martinet father figure and gangbanger swagger, but the quiet, yearning glances passed between characters. Sean Nelson, who was badly used as the title character in Fresh, does awkward-age callowness with perfect pitch here—the way he holds his head as if careful and shy of the many thoughts inside it. His grade-school buddies are also charmingly boyish (though they’re saddled with the worst period wigs since Samuel Jackson in Menace II Society). Their schooldays skits also suggest Famuyiwa’s awareness of Cooley High and tv’s What’s Happenin’ series—less resonant cultural archetypes than Boyz N the Hood, but among the few examples in which African-American adolescence was viewed with a kind, non-condescending, eye. (David Raynr’s breezy, likable Trippin‘ was almost this good.)
When a gang member cottons to Young Mike and takes him under his wing, the boys’ frightened ride in the back of his car—including a police stop-and-frisk—combines danger and surprise. This sequence, sketching gangbanger Stacey’s (De’Aundre Bonds) unexpected brotherly encouragement to Young Mike, feels almost as true as the backseat account of nighttime adventure in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Smashing Pumpkins music video for “1979.” But Famuyiwa doesn’t risk emphasizing youthful transgression; he’s wary of the distortions media has made of certain aspects of black youth—a caution nicely satirized in Stacey’s prescience about creating the ideal hiphop record: “Imagine making a whole album about smoking weed! Call that The Weed Album!” Clearly parodying Dr. Dre’s epochal 1992 The Chronic, Famuyiwa cites the moment hiphop culture went bad for good.
Preferring humane black experience to blunted ghetto ambition, The Wood suggests Charles Burnett’s 1983 feature My Brother’s Wedding given conventional treatment (there’s even a sequence in a dry cleaner’s, the family profession in the Burnett film). Famuyiwa is far from Burnett’s subtlety and naturalistic observation, but the proof that he’s on a similar track lies in the adult framing device. Mike, Slim and Roland’s friendship rises and falls on a roller coaster of tension and mutual respect. After Roland’s friends pull him out of his fear, the friends drive around the Wood in their black tuxes and gold brocade vests—symbolizing esprit de corps and turning each handsome actor into a striking, formal figure of black masculinity. Burnett wouldn’t need such obvious symbolism—he kept observing richer, even conflicting, neighborhood detail. But Burnett’s a visionary humanist, while Famuyiwa’s still a self-conscious media brat committed to celebrating and repairing the black male’s defamed image.
The Wood‘s bachelor party is weakened by Famuyiwa’s evasive bonhomie. He doesn’t pierce brotherly cohesiveness as Burnett dared. Despite the flashbacks, there’s little evidence of how tall, silly Slim became a quick-tempered adult (or, equally likely, of how Richard T. Jones, a virile icon, simply falls back on cliches of being a G). Famuyiwa clearly delights in all aspects of the trio’s brotherly beauty—as children, adults, different physical types and through the years. The film’s emotional high point comes just before the wedding vows—Mike’s vow of friendship, which Famuyiwa subtly scores to R. Kelly’s offhand, sensitive-male anthem “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time.”
Macho bluffs are plentiful in hiphop culture, yet masculinity remains a large question for most American males. The Wood—with its interesting title making a double entendre of habitat (Inglewood, CA) and a state of masculine strength—concentrates on the way boys become men by peeking behind their bluster. (One inspired moment features a gang tough humbled by his angry girlfriend; Famuyiwa vouchsafes a view of his gun stuck in a bedspring.) Famuyiwa risks commercial success by downplaying the thing that makes young black men such magnetic figures for mainstream culture (that includes the black audience, but especially duplicitous white males who complement their unacknowledged racism with the delusional admiration of black macho stereotypes). The film distinguishes itself by not endorsing male crudeness about violence or sex. Mike’s romance with Alicia (Malinda Williams in a memorable sweet performance) shows that adolescent sex-on-the-brain is connected to emotional need, recovering a fact lost in today’s pervasive American Pie burlesque. As Mike and Alicia look horizontally face-to-face (while listening to Cheryl Lynn and Luther Vandross sing “If This World Were Mine”), The Wood achieves the first intimate love scene in a teen movie—ever.
Famuyiwa’s story is too fragmented for that remembered moment to fully resonate in the adult present. The Wood‘s ambitious structure is sometimes clumsily executed (and it’s very poorly photographed, keeping the actors too dark and shiny). Famuyiwa’s view of character is more gentle than it is serious, which probably keeps him from achieving Burnett’s and Woolf’s hard insights, their brave confrontation with grown-up despair. But gentleness in hiphop is the most gratifying of faults.
Sound and Furious Art. There are also audacious time shifts in Andre Techine’s 1996 masterpiece Les Voleurs, or Thieves. Faulkner is obviously Techine’s model (the credit sequence evokes The Sound and the Fury) and, like Famuyiwa, he concentrates on a young boy—the scion of a family of crooks that includes one black-sheep cop (Daniel Auteuil). Expanding the story of time-affected and love-starved lives, Techine tells the story through several points of view, including that of a philosophy professor (Catherine Deneuve) who is Auteuil’s rival for a young rogue (Laurence Cote). One of the great films of the 1990s, Les Voleurs takes The Wood‘s theme of romantic consciousness to the highest level. Les Voleurs airs Saturday, July 31 on the Sundance Channel at 12:35 a.m.