Saturday, October 30, 2010

Film #136: Player Hating: A Love Story

The beginning of Maggie Hadleigh-West's newest documentary, Player Hating: A Love Story has Brooklyn's Crown Heights hip-hop sensation Half-A-Mill and his posse pressing the front doors of a local venue as bonafide guest listers. It's an in-line madhouse, and there's a crush of security at the threshold, and this is the heightened atmosphere Half-A-Mill desires. "I want my voice to be heard all over the world," he smiles, and dreams. The corner of earth he's being heard in now, though, is one where, Half admits, "you could get into an argument at a store and wind up gettin' killed." The world is changing; there's a lot more triggers being pulled.

Half-A-Mill looks guilty and downbeat when asked by the director if he's a thug. He answers in a gentle voice: "Yeah, you gotta thug it out here." And so Hadleigh-West is along for the ride, 180 days away from the release of Half-A-Mill's debut record Million. She gains full access to Half's crew, the Godfa Criminals, and routes through their prayers for a way out of a lifestyle they may not know how to abandon. She asks Half who his heroes are and, since they come from movies, this tells us a lot:

Some of my heroes was like Goldie or Super Fly. See, Super Fly was a hustler. Goldie was a pimp. He was The Mack, you know what I'm sayin'? He was the master at macking. The pimps, the macks, the hustlers--they created a style back in the days where you could make some. Roll up in those big Cadillacs like money wasn't no problem. These kind of people, they was heroes, because out of a bad situation, they was still living like they was kings, like they was rich, like they was in control...even though they had to do a lot of negative things to do it. You know what I'm sayin'? They did this at a time when people was looked upon like Willy Wimps in society. So it's like, the pimps and the hustlers, they really just outshined all that. When someone has that kinda power, in a neighborhood with nothing, that's what you call makin' something out of nothin'

This is the bottom line of the Player Hating concept: despising those that can make something out of "nothing." Haters have a powerful "professional" jealousy that makes it so that no one can make anything out of anything. This is poverty's effect on its sufferers: it kills almost everything it touches, because what one person gets, another one loses. Hadleigh-West approaches this harsh realm as an extreme outsider, and as such, she gets the truth because, maybe, none of these guys she points her camera at believes their words are really gonna be heard. For all its undeniable energy, Player Hating: A Love Story is a movie that leaves you feeling broadly bruised.

Still, also, you can feel much love throughout the piece, justifying that initially odd subtitle. Violence is touched upon (none is seen, though loss is felt), but the movie's primarily about friendship, and how it's threatened by the juggernaut economics our heroes can barely grasp in light of all their suffering, creativity, fame, stage time, and limo rides. There is, I cannot lie, a bunch of lingering heartbreak in Player Hating: A Love Story: one scene has Half, talking on the phone after the record release, coming to near-tearful conclusions about who really owns the record business: the industry or the artists? The filmmaker knows this is nothing that Frankie Lymon hadn't struggled over with "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" The only difference is, now, Half-A-Mill can catch his record being bootlegged on the Brooklyn streets almost immediately, which he kindly says he can almost understand, given the hard lives being lead all around him.

The film seems to come across more spirit when it centers in on Dooliani, an always-smiling member of Half's entourage, and an unofficial father figure. Doo's been in and out of jail almost all his life, having started selling hard drugs at 13, with his mother as a single parent. But now he's focused in his duties in raising his own son. But one chilling "This can't be good" moment arrives when Little Doo is asked about guns in the neighborhood. "Kids just use 'em to scare people," he says, and then he goes on to tell a story about a cousin who, during a sleepover, put a pistol in his mouth while he was asleep. His unknowing father, cradling his son's head, asks "Why didn't you tell me?" and then inquires if the gun was real, and the child's face is so despondent as he admits "It was real. It had bullets in it. He showed me." Doo Sr. seems speechless, but then pride creeps on to his face when Maggie asks the kid "Were you scared?"

"No. What have I got to be scared for? When I woke up, I slapped him."

The violence of this Brooklyn world takes over more strongly when Hadleigh-West breaks away from Half-A-Mill's goals and dives into the souls inhabiting the concrete projects. She talks to one guy hanging outside the courts about the names of the dead family members tattooed on his arm: three out of four were murdered, and when Maggie says "None of my family members have been killed like that," her subject says only "You're just a lucky one, that's all." The politics of it aren't even mentioned. Only deals for cash give these guys faith, and who the hell can blame them? They know where the bread's at.

Hadleigh-West, the director of the incomparable NYC street doc War Zone, enters into a NYC documentary pantheon that includes Richard Sandler's The Gods of Times Square and Marc Singer's Dark Days with this piece. I love Hadleigh-West's imperfect (but always impeccably held) camera. Its grain makes me feel good. It ain't no Red Eye or anything like that. It has much more character. Her hardware's the equivalent of a war-beaten 16mm camera (especially during the lovely night shots), and it adds a gorgeous grit to the images. No one will mind the low budget. And while I usually dislike documentaries where the not-ready-for-prime-time makers become players in the story (Morgan Spurlock and Nick Broomfield, take note), I adore how Hadleigh-West sweetly fits herself into Player Hating. She's wise enough to let us know every step of the way who everyone is, where we are in the story, which of Half's tracks we're listening to, and what his sales tallies are. And even though her voice is heard, she's never intrusive; we're never resentful of her presence, because she's obviously made her subjects feel first-name comfortable with her (so much so that, when Hadleigh-West finally makes a camera appearance hugging Half-a-Mill goodbye, we feel a palpable burst of devotion towards her).

I've struggled slightly with figuring out if Player Hating: A Love Story plays into white people's doofus prejudices about the hip hop industry, or if it taps into the true reality of it. But this is a silly sideshow sort of concern. Obviously, Hadleigh-West cares deeply about these soul-baring artists (note, specifically, Half's song "Life Hurts," played over the closing credits). She desperately wants to let the world know about the danger in which her subjects are constantly mired, not because of the rap industry itself, but due to an impoverished environment and those resulting values (even those values which we all share). "I coulda been a bum on the street, I coulda been killed," Half says. "I could have been in jail for the rest of my life...Out here, if you're gonna get in this game, the gangster gonna come out of you. The struggle is still on but, guess what, you still mackin', baby."

Half-A-Mill, with and without specs, always speaks so intelligently. He goes on: "The only person in this life you have to prove something to is yourself. Once you feel famous to yourself, you're automatically famous to everybody else. I'm talkin' about self-love." When the record lands, this is when the even more bloody, genuine world--the one outside of the the 'hood--steps in. And it becomes too much for a lot of people involved. Player Hating: A Love Story is one of the premier documents of the Hip Hop Age, and as such deserves a large audience, because it humanely holds nothing back. Absolutely nothing.


Hussain Currimbhoy said...

brilliant film, made with heart. i've never seen this side of the hip hop music industry displayed with such sincerity. i hope it gets the attention it deserves. this one is a sleeper hit!

Rambler's Kin said...

gorgeous insightful review of an extraordinary film. a story told humanely without sentimentality. the world would be a different place if we could all see as clearly as Hadleigh-West.

ashraf said...

awesome, I am so glad Maggie is getting an audience for this film. It is heartbreaking and beautiful.