The Breaks Dir. Seith Mann

[VH1; 2016]

Styles: hip-hop, quasi-biopic, made for tv
Others: Dope, Krush Groove, Paid In Full, 8 Mile

The Breaks isn’t exactly a film-film. That is to say you can’t go see it in theaters, queue it up in Netflix or cop it on DVD/Blu-Ray (not yet at least). What it is, is a fictionalized TV-movie about the commercialization of hip-hop in the early 90s, doubling as a pilot episode for a potential series to be aired on VH1… yes, VH1 of all channels. This is the network that brought us the ongoing cultural denigration series Love & Hip Hop, as well as the not-so-honorific Hip Hop Honors festivals, which featured such… well… fiascoes as Lupe Fiasco forgetting the words to “Electric Relaxation” and “Scenario” while performing in front of A Tribe Called Quest. With only this in this reviewer’s mind, The Breaks had everything going against it leading up to its premiere.

The simple fact that the movie didn’t suck Phonte balls was a small victory unto itself. That it’s actually very good is mainly a testament to a talented cast, cross-generationally anchored by The Wire veterans Tristan “Mack” Wilds (as gifted producer DeeVee whose beats are going to waste on a wack hobby rapper), Wood Harris (as coked-out Uncle Rustle-type industry executive Barry Fouray), and Cliff “Method Man” Smith (as DeeVee’s father, who, in a not-so-slick attempt by the film at self-referential irony, is sick and tired of all that “noise” being made in his garage).

These characters are joined by the stubbornly persistent Nikki (Afton Williams), who we’re told tore up a Harvard Law School scholarship during her graduation speech because she’s more interested in working with hip-hop artists; Nikki’s boyfriend, David (David Call), the white, privileged son of a payola pusher, who loves “real” hip-hop like Brand Nubian, hates MC Hammer and is generally disgruntled about his job at an otherwise-all-black radio station with a strict no-rap policy; the tortured gangster/latent recording artist Ahm (former pro-footballer Antoine Harris), whose pain lends his lyrics not just a sense of true-story authenticity but restless immediacy and emotional depth; and so on.

Nikki annoys her way into a job at Barry’s label, slyly maneuvering up the corporate ladder; DeeVee hunts down Ahm, setting himself up to become a possible accessory to murder in the process; David plays Public Enemy on the radio, getting himself fired; Ahm and DeeVee do a song so raw and enrapturing it drives the city’s hottest hip-hop club crazy, grabbing the attention of Barry; and on and on and…

If these characters sound cliché, this plot formulaic, that’s probably because they are and it is; however, the film’s strength lies neither in the character types nor the story arc (inspired, as it turns out, by hip-hop journalist Dan Charnas’ book The Big Payback), but in the abilities of the actors to overcome the odds and make something much bigger than background music out of these basic beats. As the determined but wide-eyed DeeVee, Wilds gives a performance opposite-but-nearly-equal his Emmy-deserving turn as steel-souled kid-turned-killer Michael Lee. As the powdery-nosed, fiery-tempered Barry Fouray, Wood Harris adds yet another flawless portrayal to his role call of variously and wonderfully flawed folk-heroes (think Ace in Paid In Full and Avon in The Wire). As ghetto griot Ahm, Antoine Harris brings a sinister subtly that can only be described as “where did that come from?”

And speaking of background music, that too is excellent, as the score was provided adeptly by none other than DJ Premier. Adding to the musicality of the proceedings, rappers A-F-R-O (protégé of R.A. the Rugged Man) and Phonte (of Little Brother) pop up as D-Rome and Imam Ali, respectively, with the latter MC writing the majority of the rhymes in the film. Another job well done.

The Breaks was picked up by VH1 as an ongoing series, and I for one am glad they’re keeping the story going, if only because in true pilot fashion, the TV-movie ends with almost nothing resolved, except in this case that several key players’ performances are more than deserving of reprise.

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