Monday, July 18, 2011

Beats, Rhymes, and Life: Not a Documentary, But An Irresponsible Disservice

Recently, I had the chance to view Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the new documentary directed by actor Michael Rapaport. You’ll likely remember him from his roles as “Zack” in Zebrahead (1992); “Remy” from Higher Learning (1995); or from Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000); where he portrayed “Mr. Thomas Dunwitty,” the racist, self-centered, and egotistical television producer who believed he knew black people better than they knew themselves.

Like most folk my age who love hip hop—the culture and the music — I have an affinity for what A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) brought to our lives. For a self-professed “brainy jock” (cool term for nerd who played sports) like myself, ATCQ was part of my life’s soundtrack. I distinctly remember when each album dropped and what I was doing when the day I purchased it. All five albums mean something different to me—though some are better than others. Like most fans I can have an intense debate about why I believe The Low End Theory was the masterpiece of their discography vs. Midnight Marauders, much in the same way folk argue over sports or politics. Thus, it was with the greatest anticipation I went to see Rapaport’s documentary.

I entered the theater like a Star Wars or Harry Potter fan—all decked out in my ATCQ gear, rocking my Midnight Marauders tee and a super fresh pair of Air Jordan Retro Ones that were dedicated to the group (my most coveted pair of sneaks). I sat down ready to see what I hoped was a reliving of some old musical memories and a telling of Tribe’s story by another fan—Michael Rapaport. Unfortunately, from the very outset of the film Rapaport shows his hand. He is out to sell the story of family feud and personal beef. The documentary begins by looking at the rift between Q-Tip and Phife—an unfortunate, sad, and self-serving mistake.

As a historian, this is a mistake I’m intimately familiar with and must always be cautious of in my own writing. As juicy as personal details are, one always has to resist the temptation to allow them to drive the analysis. Why? Because history is not about sensationalizing subject(s). When that occurs it ceases to be history and becomes tabloid-esque sensationalism. For instance, many have critiqued and criticized the late Professor Manning Marable for his recent biography of Malcolm X entitled, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Scores of folk find Marable’s scholarship slanderous because they believe he is sensationalizing aspects of Brother Malcolm’s private life. I’m not saying exclude private details or conflicts, because they are important, but they should not be the driving force of the story you tell.

Documentarians face a similar challenge. Like historians, they have to be able to provide a narrative that explores the nuances of their subject without allowing them to overpower the larger story. A good documentary should leave the viewer with a fuller understanding of the inner workings and outside influences that inform why this subject’s story is worthy of telling. It is not about taking sides, but providing a three-dimensional view of your subject matter.

Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, or the complex nature of it, is no secret. It has never been. Any fan has known that for years. We all have family issues. We all have functional levels of dysfunction. Those issues however, do not have to be put on display to understand how the persons in that family interact. Instead, Rapaport seems to have let his fictional character “Mr. Dunwitty” take charge of directing.

It was great to reminisce about A Tribe Called Quest, but Mr. Rapaport did Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and hip hop a disservice. What he directed is not a documentary. Sensationalized, with a few moments of welcome nostalgia for fans like myself, it is a patchwork quilt of a film —more akin to reality shows on the family of Viacom networks.

Part of the problem is Rapaport’s use of external sources — or lack there of. I found it incredibly odd that he used not one journalist or scholar that could capture the broader implications of what the group was able to create and the indelible mark they left on hip hop and popular culture. Hell, I would have even liked to hear from fans on the street giving their reflections of the group during their 1990s reign.

The absence of journalists from The Source, VIBE, or The Village Voice from that era is at the very least irresponsible. During the late 1980s and the entire decade of the 1990s an argument can be made that journalists were just as integral to the development and analysis of hip-hop as the artists themselves. Their insight, even on a small scale, would have been a great supplement to artist interviews and help to contextualize the Native Tongues Movement.

One of the gross missteps of the movie, and my biggest critique, is that Rapaport did not devote more time to the most important thing about ATCQ — the music. More time should have been spent examining the five albums that A Tribe Called Quest created. What Rapaport gave us was akin to making a documentary about The Beatles that focuses solely on the deteriorating relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. If Rapaport set out to make a film about Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to make a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, then it is a miserable failure.
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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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