Tuesday, February 18, 2014

VOD Review - Big Words (Black History Month)

Yaya Alafia (left) and Dorian Missick
in "Big Words"
Neil Drumming wrote and directed this film about the lives of three African-American men who converge on November 4, 2008, the election day for President Barack Obama. The three black men used to be friends but haven't been together in 15 years. The three had formed a rap group, but personal circumstances tore them apart. This night will see them deal with those circumstances.

This movie is a great film to spotlight for Black History Month because this is a movie distributed by AFFRM. AFFRM stands for African American Film Festival Releasing Movement. It's a collection of film organizations that seek to provide distribution of independent movies for black people by black people. AFFRM's first movie was I Will Follow (2010) by Ava DuVernay, the award-winning filmmaker who has become AFFRM's ambassador. Her film Middle of Nowhere (2012) was also distributed under AFFRM.

Big Words is the sixth film released under the AFFRM banner. It got a limited theatrical run in July 2013. It had foregone a proper DVD release. Instead, the film went straight to Video-On-Demand and was exclusively available on Netflix to stream, starting on January 6, 2014.

It stars three men, mostly known for their roles on television. Dorian Missick (Southland and Haven) plays John Smith who 15 years ago was known as "Big Words," the leader of the rap group and main lyricist, but now is an IT worker in Jersey. Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire and Nurse Jackie) plays James who is currently a publicist at a book publisher, previously known as Jayvee Da Mack. Darian Sills-Evans (Third Watch and Treme) plays Terry, the DJ of the rap group who after 15 years still hasn't moved on. He still refers to himself as DJ Malik. He still plays vinyl records and keeps talking about a beat he made nearly two decades ago but can't let it go.

As we watch these three black men go about their day culminating in the announcement of Obama's win, Drumming, a former magazine editor and contributor, addresses some of the controversies surrounding rap and hip hop music, as well as music in general. Examples include defining hip hop in the 21st century, sampling, authenticity and even the issue of homophobia.

Even though we now live in a world where an openly gay hip hop artist, Frank Ocean, can perform on national TV like the Grammy Awards, this movie acknowledges the history and the echoes of homophobia that persist slightly. Ocean is more known as being a R&B artist and a hardcore gay rapper like Le1f or Big Freedia has yet to achieve a spot in the mainstream, or a place on the Grammy stage.

To get us into it, Drumming introduces the character of Ben, played by Zachary Booth (Keep the Lights On and Damages), an assistant to James and an aspiring writer who wants to do a book about his father, Isaac Shine. Coincidentally, Shine was the owner of the record label that signed the rap group of the three black men in question.

The group was signed to a label but they never became a big thing. The group in fact broke up not that long after being signed. All three men know why but no one is saying. It's up to Ben to learn the reason that split the group. The reason has a lot of implications, but the true power is seeing how each man deals with the aftermath and move forward with their lives, if move forward at all.

Watching how each man handles intimate relationships is part of that. The trick is seeing how they connect with potential partners or disconnect with those partners. Yaya Alafia (Lee Daniels' The Butler and All My Children) plays Annie, a stripper who is also an aspiring singer. Seeing how John connects and disconnects from her is very revealing. Amir Arison (The Blacklist and Girls) plays Eddie, the gay lover to James. Seeing how James disconnects and then connects to him is equally revealing.

It's a movie that boasts great performances from each of the actors here, particularly from Missick. They're subtle, humanistic, funny and empathetic. Drumming has created a great slice of life.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.

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