The Beat (2003) / Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for language, violence, and sexual dialogue
Running Time: 86 min.
Cast: Rahman Jamaal, Kazz Wingate, Keith Ewell, Jermaine Williams, Steve Connell, Jazsmin Lewis, Gregory Alan Williams, Toby Howard, Paul Wilson, Coolio, Chino XL, Betsy Randle, Brian McKnight
Director: Brandon Sonnier
Screenplay: Brandon Sonnier
Review published September 8, 2005
Brandon Sonnier makes a terrific debut as a filmmaker to watch in his hip-hop odyssey The Beat, a movie aimed squarely for the hip-hop heads that is just as vibrant and lyrical as the music from which it draws inspiration. It's one of the more clever independent films covering the genre, starting right off with the different nuances to the phrase "The Beat", representing the rhythm of music alternately with the slang phrase for working, especially as it applies to police officers. Unlike many other films that cast rappers in prominent roles, even ones squarely about the world of hip-hop itself, The Beat showcases the clever lyrics that are part and parcel of the underground Hip Hop movement, emphasizing word play and a fine-tuned finesse of delivery more commonly known as "having skills". Sonnier may not get on the mic, but when it comes to making films, he definitely shows he has skills right out the box.
The plot: Flip (Jamaal) and his older brother Cash (Wingate) are an aspiring duo of rappers looking to make it big in the industry. Their plans go awry when Cash is brutally murdered in an alley one day, shattering Flip's desire to continue in the pursuit of music without him. Faced with the challenge of pursuing his dreams of being a rapper extraordinaire or to get a real job like his father (Williams, In the Line of Fire) wants, the film envisions two separate paths Flip might travel from the point where his brother dies to two years later. One scenario sees Flip leaving home and living out in the dangerous streets of LA, gaining the life experiences necessary to be able to truly write about the hard life of the ghetto existence as a homeless Black man in the hood. The other scenario shows Flip, using his father's preferred name of Philip, as a headstrong rookie cop on the beat, eschewing any pretense of being a rapper, doing his duty day in and day out in the world of busting criminals and lowlifes.
Truth be told, The Beat is a low budget tale that sometimes shows, but the quality of the writing and the beauty that is hearing some very talented street poets and aspiring rappers flow so well more than makes up for the occasionally stiff delivery as a film. Sonnier is blessed with a cast that definitely delivers, which is especially commendable considering that most of the actors are also making their feature film debut here. Rahmaan Jamaal shines as Flip, not only in capturing the essence of a mixed race young man trying to fit into a society that judges him on external appearances both in the hood and out. As competent as his acting is, his flow is even more impressive, especially during a particularly brilliant piece where he freestyles over a classical music piece about the virtues of Hip Hop as a form of art worthy of as much praise as the finest of concertos. He makes a strong case.
Don't be dismayed by thinking this is another "gangsta" movie glorifying the thug life of drug dealers or gang bangers just because it revolves around hip-hop. The Beat is as articulate, refreshing, and complex as the artists struggling for lyrical perfection that most mainstream listeners of the radio never get to hear from the commercial stations. Although Sonnier is still in film school at the time of this movie's release, based on the quality of his first film, he looks as though he has been studying cinematic technique with every bit of the fervor that Flip does his rhyme and flow. If you love hip-hop -- REAL hip-hop -- you'll love this movie.
©2005 Vince Leo