A salute to the movie work of Yasiin Bey (credited as Mos Def) from 2005 to 2008 and why it remains important.
In a remarkable three-year period, the rapper Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey, but born Dante Terrell Smith. We’re referring to him as Mos Def throughout this piece, as that’s how he was credited on the movies) co-starred in three critically divisive two-handers. There was The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005), 16 Blocks (Richard Donner, 2006) and Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008).
All three were ambitious and problematic, offering lyrical takes on the sci-fi blockbuster, the chase thriller, and the buddy movie respectively. Taken collectively as a Mos Def trilogy, they form a wonderfully eccentric chapter in cinematic history.
His low-key style and soulful, cerebral sincerity made Mos Def an unusual foil to his three bread and butter, white male leads in each film: the bumbling, stressed Englishman (Martin Freeman), the weary American (Bruce Willis), and the comedy heavyweight (Jack Black). Mos Def represents an inversion of all three co-stars.
What’s more, his onscreen presence was unlike anything expected from a rapper. In fact, rap casting in contemporary films is interesting: Snoop Dogg in Starsky And Hutch (Todd Phillips, 2004), Busta Rhymes in Shaft (Tim Story, 2000) and Ice Cube in Are We There Yet? (Brian Levant, 2005) Eminem in 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002) or 50 Cent in Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (Jim Sheridan, 2005) – all of these leads and cameos relied on the semantic (and fan) appeal of the rappers themselves. When the role is comic, it’s against type and that is the source of much of the humour.
Bradley and DuBois stated in The Anthology Of Rap that “Mos has elevated the reputation of the much-maligned rapper/actor hybrid.” These three films, as well as his Black Reel Awards-winning supporting role in The Woodsman (Nicole Kassell, 2005), re-evaluated the public perception of the hip-hop actor, and unburdened some of its baggage. In these three movies, Mos Def doesn’t play a rapper, he doesn’t contribute to the soundtrack, and he avoids all the clichés and stereotypes of what has gone before. He doesn’t play a ‘tough guy’ or chase an American dream.
Mos is an outlier. Born in Brooklyn in 1973, he is regarded as one of the greatest emcees of all time. His heartfelt, dexterous raps eloquently challenge American politics and race issues. He hosted Def Poetry Jam (2002-2007) on HBO: a showcase for spoken word poetry. He even bought a Brooklyn bookstore with fellow rapper Talib Kweli (they rapped together under the name Black Star). It was renamed the Nkiru Center for Education and Culture, and continues to promote literacy and multicultural awareness for people of colour. In 2002, he played on Broadway in Top Dog/Underdog, which won playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was this performance that caught the eye of Jennings’s casting director Susie Figgis and ultimately won him the role of Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in 2005.
The movie’s journey to screen was troubled. The story, as you likely know, is far too long to summarise snappily, but it essentially follows Arthur Dent (Freeman) as he is taken to the pub by Ford Prefect (Mos Def). There, Dent learns that the Earth is about to be demolished by a construction firm to make room for a new hyperspace bypass, a project greenlit by the Vogon race. Prefect (who has another, unpronounceable, name on his home planet of Betelgeuse) is an alien writing a new edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. And so off they go, hitchhikin’ across the galaxy, with much adventure along the way. And they search for the meaning of life. With good towels. It’s a strange story that makes more sense experienced than explained.
Garth Jennings directed and Nick Goldsmith produced (they are better known as the collective Hammer and Tongs). The pair was responsible for some of the most inventive music videos of the 1990s and 2000s, including shorts for Pulp, Fatboy Slim, Blur, Supergrass, Beck and Vampire Weekend. Hammer and Tongs would later make the charming Son Of Rambow in 2008 (to which we will return later) before going solo in 2012.
The screenplay was written by Douglas Adams (along with Karey Kirkpatrick), adapting his own work. Unfortunately, Adams died before production started and therein lay some of the troubles. Terry Jones, Ivan Reitman, Rob Reiner and Jay Roach had all come and gone as directors before Hammer and Tongs steadied the ship (although Roach did receive a production credit). When Roach stepped aside, Robbie Stamp (executive producer) ended up finding Jennings and Goldsmith.
The casting of a rap star raised eyebrows, and dismayed some of the hardcore fanbase (Bill Murray had been one of the names originally mooted). But Mos Def’s sheer otherworldliness, to me, seemed to be the point of his presence. The performance has aged well.
Prior to release, journalist Mike Simpson interviewed Jennings and Goldsmith via the h2g2 website, which was co-founded by Adams and Stamp. He asked of Mos Def, “he’s not going to playing a hip-hop Ford, is he?” Jennings’s response is interesting, saying that the concept “would be the most appalling thing in the world.” He added that “he’s the most wonderful actor first and foremost… and just fits the brief in the most unexpected way.”
Stamp also defended the casting by saying that, “Mos is fantastic in the movie. Of probably all the casting, that one sent up the biggest flutter among some people. But he’s just fabulous […] they [Jennings and Goldsmith) already had Martin in mind for Arthur, and I think they just thought the pairing was perfect. And he does come “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.” He’s not human, and Mos manages to convey that very subtly and very brilliantly in his performance.”
A year later, Mos appeared in a very different movie. 16 Blocks, directed by Hollywood heavyweight Richard Donner, was very much set on Earth and very much in your face. The screenplay, written by Richard Wenk, takes the mismatched, mixed race buddy movie into a more meditative place. It’s thoughtful but hasn’t an ounce of subtlety in its broad strokes and themes. It also remains a curious movie due to its total sincerity. It’s desperately trying to say something, while equally desperately trying to entertain as a thriller. This conflict is uneven and fascinating.
The premise: world weary alcoholic cop Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) must escort Eddie Bunker ’16 blocks’ to testify in court. The journey should last 118 minutes. But Bunker is about to testify against… the NYPD. The result is a real-time race against the clock. Mos Def plays the role with a mixture of almost childlike optimism, bravery and a steel core that manifests in a particularly tense stand-off with NYPD bad guy Frank Nugent (played wonderfully against type by David Morse). It’s an idiosyncratic, nuanced performance.
In an interview with blackfilm.com, Wenk said that the “first choice [to play the role of Eddie Bunker) was Mos and he was unavailable. He was doing another picture, so we started to read a lot of other actors. We kept using the words that there’s something savant-like about Eddie. As someone who has such a belief in himself in spite of his life, has to have some sort of savant-like quality of belief. When Mos suddenly became available, because his picture dropped out, we sent him a letter, that we wrote, along with some notes and the script, and used the word that Eddie is somewhat savant-like.” To my mind, this is exactly how Mos played the role.
Be Kind Rewind, two years later in 2008, was yet another swerve. Michel Gondry was on the form of his life following the visually experimental Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and the joyous concert movie Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005), in which Mos starred. Like Garth Jennings, Gondry had form with the music video, directing for Daft Punk, Radiohead and Björk.
The movie is both a celebration and a critique of Hollywood filmmaking. Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover) owns the Be Kind Rewind VHS rental store in a crumbling neighbourhood of Passaic. The store, and the local buildings, are due to be condemned unless money can be found. Fletcher is leaving town to attend a Fats Domino convention and entrusts the store to the care of his young assistant Mike (Mos Def) on the proviso that his wild friend Jerry (Jack Black) must stay away. Jerry attempts to sabotage the local power plant (he believes it is emitting mind-controlling microwaves) and becomes magnetised. He accidentally wipes all of the videos.
Mike and Jerry decide that the only solution is to start remaking the movies together with just a camcorder. This method, which becomes known as “Sweding’, becomes wildly popular nationally. Mr Fletcher returns and is shocked but happy to fall in. After a cease and desist order from the studios, the store is doomed to demolition. The community rallies and shoots one last film – an alternate history of Fats Domino. It is screened outdoors onto the walls of the store. It is film made about, for and by the community: a film ideology that film theorist Julio García Espinosa called ‘imperfect cinema’. This links to Hammer and Tongs’s Son of Rambow (2007), which told the story of two children creating their own movie adaptation of Rambo: First Blood. While citing Epsinosa, author Erin Hogan argued that Be Kind Rewind itself is a ‘Swede’ of Cervantes’s literary classic Don Quixote (1605), with Jerry as Don Quixote and Mike as Sancho: errant knights questing with tin foil armour and basins for helmets.
While sweding, the pair frequently find problems with casting. Jerry is racially sensitive but frequently, perhaps inadvertently, racist. They find ways of recreating or hiding blackness in the filming, by Xeroxing each others’ faces to tape on the others’ as masks, or by using a camera’s night mode to create negative skin tone. This is good natured and well intentioned until Jerry slips into egotism. He defends filming Driving Miss Daisy – a film Mike finds distasteful. Jerry performs a dreadfully insensitive impression of Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2. At the climax of the film, at the screening of their first non-sweded product, Jerry demands to play Fats Domino in full black face and this is the tipping point. Mr Fletcher intervenes. Jerry cites his body shape as justification. Jerry demonstrates underlying misogynistic, sexist and homophobic tendencies and demands his own trailer. Jerry turns their new Hollywood into the old Hollywood by remaking the same cultural errors. Mike regains control of the situation and the community is united by glorious failure.
In 1999, Mos released the album Black on Both Sides through Rawkus Records. It features the confrontational Rock N Roll’. Mos angrily, but eloquently, raps about artists of colour being historically overshadowed and appropriated by white artists who ‘ain’t got no soul’ There is a notable couplet: ‘I said, Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul / Chuck Berry is rock and roll.’ In 16 Blocks, Eddie Bunker presents Jack Mosley with a cake decorated with the names of prominent African-Americans who’changed their lives, one of which was Chuck Berry. In 2009, Mos appeared in Cadillac Records playing…Chuck Berry.
In 2017, Tia Tyree published a paper ‘Making Movie Money – that analysed 20 years of rappers’ acting roles in Hollywood movies. Her goal was to draw links between ‘rap artists’ musical personalities and the movie characters they portrayed.’ Ice T called this micro-industry “movie money”. In her study, Tyree found that “gangsta, hardcore and party rappers were cast in movies more frequently.” She noted that although most films did have rap artists speaking, acting and looking like their rap personas”, there were opportunities for an “elite group to transcend […] and become successful actors.” This group contained Mos Def. So while there is a troubling conflict between black rappers being given prime Hollywood screen time and the potentially stereotypical image they are embodying (machismo, criminality, misogyny), there is evidence that there are green shoots.
Tyree notes Celine Shimizu’s conviction that “narrative Hollywood movies are a manifestation of the White Male fantasy”. This trilogy are all directed by white males. All question race, either in the narrative or in the critical response. None of them use hip-hop mythology as a White Male fantasy through Mos Def’s casting.
His rap persona is built on integrity, wit and sensitivity, and that is what he brings to this trilogy. So, in defence of Mos Def onscreen (should a defence be at all needed): be kind, rewind (and watch again).
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