Film Friday: Hip Hop on Film

Today’s Film Friday post takes a look at Kimberly Monteyne’s Hip Hop on Film: Performance, Culture , Urban Space, and Genre Transformation in the 1980s. This book fills a gap in hip hop scholarship in that it examines hip hop culture on film and its relationship to classical film genres and institutional dance traditions. Monteyne places these films within the wider context of their cultural antecedents and reconsiders the genre's influence.

Monteyne includes a close study of Charlie Ahearn’s groundbreaking independent film Wild Style (1983) including an in-depth discussion of the famous “basketball number.” That scene is below along with a short excerpt from Hip Hop in Film. 

Ahearn’s West Side Story-influenced “basketball number” brings dance and athletics together as two opposing teams or “crews” battle each other through rhyme and choreographed movements, all the while chasing the ball across an inner-city court. This number makes reference to a specific iconic musical number but it also neatly brings the relationship between violence and performance to bear on the concept of integration within the musical film genre...
In Wild Style’s basketball throwdown, the transition from speech to song as a natural occurrence arising from the plot is certainly in place, unavoidably so, since rapping is already directly derived from everyday speech. Individual members of the crews answer back and forth to one another in increasingly challenging rhymes directed both at individuals and the gang as a whole. Because crew competition is one of the overarching themes of Wild Style, by the time this number occurs, the motivation for the scene is in fact already inscribed in the film through many prior displays of creative rivalry.
The competitive theme of this musical number is highlighted by the lyrics of the rap because the names of the two opposing crews—the Cold Crush Bros. and Fantasy Five—are repeated throughout the performance. Members of the two groups also state their own individual names during the rhyme, emphasizing the unique components of each organization. The initial movements of the number are choreographed to match the competitive boasts asserted by the rappers who physically challenge one other as each new crew member is introduced. Camerawork in this sequence utilizes both rapid editing and sustained long takes that follow the ball through the air as it travels between players and the net. In the latter instance, the movement is so quick that the resulting images often resemble a blur of outstretched arms and leaping torsos while the two crews vie for possession of the ball. When the camera directly follows the actual movements of the basketball this underscores the escalating confrontational “dance” of the two crews by imitating the conventional style of filming sports games for televised broadcast. Thus, the musical content, dance expression, and camera movement of the number all work towards conveying a central concern of the film: the competitive configurations of hip hop culture that developed from organized youth contests. 

As the camera enthusiastically follows the basketball, it also brings into view the surrounding spaces and faces of the inner city and shows us a chorus line of young female rappers commenting on the two crews. The edge of the cinematic frame reveals a vibrant picture of inner-city life as it captures other ball games, graffiti-laden walls, tenement blocks, and onlookers. Documentary images of street life in the South Bronx are completely fused with the spaces of a musical performance in this sequence. A sustained focus on the rappers movements, rather than preventing documentary aspects from entering into the screen, actually facilitates their inclusion.