The Hip Hop Project
has already scored a big victory - before it even opened in theaters.
A documentary focusing on Chris "Kazi" Rolle and his program to give troubled teens a means of expression and empowerment through the recording of an album, the film was initially handed an R rating by the MPAA ratings board. The songs were rife with expletives - more than a dozen f-bombs alone. Normally, that's an automatic R, the dreaded "under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian."
But Kazi, a central figure in the film, and director Matt Ruskin appealed the rating. A few weeks ago they stood before the board in Los Angeles to make their case. And they got their PG-13.
"The whole goal of the movie is to reach young people in a language that they themselves use all the time," explains Kazi, who screened The Hip Hop Project in Philadelphia this week. It opened in theaters Friday.
"The language is used in context - it's used when the kids are at a certain point in their lives, to show the transition of how this program and this music helped them to effectively channel their issues."
Ultimately, Kazi says, the doc's content won out over its language. "We have stuff about love, and race relationships, the power of forgiveness, mentoring, emotional healing, promoting mental health, overcoming obstacles, fulfilling dreams. . . . So I just presented them with all this stuff.
"And Matt spoke to them as a filmmaker, about precedents set with other films, like [the Iraq war documentary] Gunner Palace. Gunner Palace had 42 f-words, and they gave it a PG-13 based on content.
"And they deliberated for about 20 minutes, and came back with a 6 to 2 vote, for us."
The Hip Hop Project, which screened at the 2006 TriBeCa Film Festival, was shot over the course of several years. Kazi, a Bahamian raised in orphanages and foster homes, moved to New York as a teenager. For a time, he lived in Brooklyn with his mother. But trouble, in school and out, put him on the streets.
It was at a "last chance" high school that he was introduced to Art Start, a program that led, ultimately, to his creation of the Hip Hop Project.
"I was hustling from 8 o'clock at night until 8 o'clock in the morning and then going to school, and falling asleep in school," says Kazi, 15 then, 28 now.
"A guidance counselor asked what would keep me engaged. I said I wanted to be involved in the arts, and she told me about this school called Repertory Company. I went to the school and got into dance and choreography and playwriting and acting."
In one class, taught by Scott Rosenberg, who went on to become a producer of the film, Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album, Ready to Die, was part of the curriculum.
"The beginning of that album has something that's called a montage sequence," Kazi says. "So Scott showed us a montage sequence in a movie, and then he played the album, and we got it."
The seeds were sown. Kazi finished high school and went to work for Art Start, teaching its curriculum while he developed his own. "On Oct. 16, 1999, I launched this thing called the Hip Hop Project, and seven years later it's still going strong."
In the film, Kazi is seen guiding, mentoring and producing - and rapping. He works with a number of teens as they shape songs culled from their experiences. Diana "Princess" Lemon is a student faced with a fraying family and a pregnancy; Chris "Cannon" Mapp is watching his mother fade away with multiple sclerosis.
"It's all about overcoming adversity," Kazi says. "Hip-hop is the soundtrack of the underdog, the expression of people from disenfranchised communities."
The film also shows hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons talking about the music as a positive force in race relations, and Bruce Willis offering a recording studio to Kazi and his crew.
"I wanted to create this album, and I couldn't raise the money to get studio time," Kazi says. "It's always hard to get money from nonprofits, especially if you've got the term 'hip hop' in the name of your program. And out of nowhere Bruce Willis goes to Russell Simmons' office and says, 'I have this studio, do you know anybody that can use it?'
"Wham, right in our lap!"
With the movie, an accompanying soundtrack, and a Web site (www.hiphopproject.com), Kazi is keeping busy. At the end of the film, he hands directorship of the program over to Princess (she still runs the project, and Kazi's on the board of directors). In the fall he plans to release a solo album, Many Faces, and go on tour.
"Hip-hop isn't just about gangstas, money and misogyny," Kazi says. "I love a 50 Cent, I love a Jay-Z, I think hip-hop has created more black millionaires than any other time in history, so we're in a place of economic empowerment, and we all want to live the American Dream. . . .
"But we also need something for our internal spirit, or soul, or whatever you want to call it. And music goes past the conscious mind into the soul. If you don't have anything in the music to feed that, there's going to be an emptiness."
"Later" dude. In 28 Weeks Later . . ., the "Rage virus" that ravaged the U.K. in Danny Boyle's scare-ific 2002 hit, 28 Days Later. . . has been brought under control. A U.S.-led NATO force has secured London, the country is being rebuilt, the population reintroduced.
And then it all falls apart - catastrophically. The film opened in theaters Friday.
"When you're dealing with these kind of concepts, it's important to believe that everything that you're watching on the big screen could happen," says Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the Spaniard who directed the dark, jolting, zombiesque sequel. "Especially nowadays, because we are living in a difficult world, and all these menaces that the movie is talking about are a part of our consciousness."
Fresnadillo, 39, was a big fan of the original. Out of the blue in late 2005 he received a call from Boyle about directing the follow-up. Boyle had seen Fresnadillo's 2001 film, Intacto - a thriller about luck and destiny - and was impressed. (Intacto is available on DVD, from Lions Gate.)
"Danny made a benchmark in terms of horror movies," Fresnadillo says, on the phone from New York. "That's why I was so pleased, and on the other hand surprised, about the invitation. It's strange. I'm not a Londoner, in fact I didn't know London at that moment at all. . . . and the city in the movie is a big character. . . .
"I thought maybe I'm not the proper filmmaker. And then we had a meeting and I understood. They needed fresh eyes."