Saturday, April 01, 2006

“ATL” in Review: The Crisis of Black Male Purpose Revisited

So, last night was Friday night. If you read this blog regularly, by now you should know that I do one of two things on Friday nights: 1) eat fried food and 2) go see black cinema. Since spring is in full gear and I felt good about the upcoming weekend, last night I went for both: consuming fried chicken from the dilapidated Chinese take-out spot I frequent in the Bronx after seeing Tip “T.I.” Harris’s “ATL” on opening night.

Rated PG-13, “ATL” is a coming of age story for young black males in the South (Think: Bow Wow’s “Roll Bounce” meets Terrance Howard’s “Hustle & Flow”). The plot centers on three friends on different life paths, all hailing from Atlanta, Georgia. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, each of the three is trying to find a way out of the urban Atlanta lifestyle they’re all so familiar with. I interpreted this more broadly as Director Chris Robinson addressing the crisis of purpose among black males

Predictably, the three paths of success that are explored are higher education, the dope boy lifestyle (i.e. street pharmacy) and artistic talent. What is unpredictable is the fact that artistry in this film takes the form of visual illustration and not hip-hop. In fact, aside from the film’s soundtrack itself, hip-hop plays a peripheral role, acting only as the soundtrack for southern, urban life and not the center.

Exploring the film’s musical score further, while the soundtrack for the film includes the southern radio hits we’ve become so familiar with (namely: Disturbing tha Peace’s “Georgia”, T.I.’s “What You Know?” and seemingly every other hip-hop track in recent memory that has come out of A-Town) I found it to be far too predictable. As a general rule, contemporary hits should be avoided at the risk of creating a film that is too “in the moment”. Contemporary hits bode well for contemporary films, while classic (the inclusion of Mista’s “Blackberry Molasses” and "Git Up Git Out" from Outkast's 1994's Southernplayalisticadillacmusik was a fantastic choice) and new music help generate more significant lasting power.

Notably, the focal setting of the entire film takes place in a rollerskating rink. For those unfamiliar with urban, southern recreation this might seem trivial, while my periodic visits to family members in the South confirm the fact that the skating rink does act as a fairly central place of social interaction. The danger in placing so much of the film’s emphasis in the skating rink is the fact that it draws instinctive comparisons to “Roll Bounce”. Considering the dearth of diversity among black cinema, I can really only enjoy watching black people roller skate on screen once a decade. Getting past this comparison, good use is made of the recreational cultural differences dictated by region.

In terms of acting performances, the two most notable cast members are T.I. and Big Boi of Outkast. T.I. gives a decent first performance, playing the role of a concerned older brother, though, as I understand T.I.’s personal history, the screen play isn’t too far of a stretch from his present life. Big Boi actually surprised me, playing the role of Dope Man quite well, striking fear in the hearts of light-skinned brothers such as myself.

Other topics the film touches on include the disconnect between urban and suburban blacks, remembering your roots once you’ve made it, and that damn recurring theme of acting “ghetto” (have we ever agreed on a proper definition for that?”.

Random questions for viewers:
-Was it just me or was there too much teenage sex to be comfortable with?
-Were the film’s subtle inclusion of grillz and rims too much, or not enough for your taste?
-Does Lauren “New-New” London deserve the title of being my new, favorite light-skinned crush? -- All answers to concerns of black male objectification in response to this question will be deferred to a later posting…
-Who else caught the cameo of "Judy the Booty" -- Buffie the Body?

A cautionary and inspirational urban tale, Brother Lightness gives it one thumb up.

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