Monday, September 21, 2015

Hustlers Convention (dir. Mike Todd)

The documentary Hustlers Convention perfectly demonstrates the difference between popular culture and pop culture. Of course there is an overlap between them, but popular or folk culture is an "of the people, by the people, for the people" phenomenon, while pop culture as we know it today is a commercial production complex, focused on profits and increasingly made by wealthy creators who are about as street-credible as Paris Hilton.

The Last Poets and the Watts Prophets were the real deal. These African-American poetry-and-music collectives of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a major influence on later pop culture - rap begins here - and the Last Poets in particular had just a touch of pop culture success. But they were not corporate-friendly. Using accessible idioms to communicate matters of social and political urgency, they chose "the message over the money," retaining their integrity but finding themselves crowded out of the discussion.

Last Poet Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, aka Lightnin' Rod, aka Alafia Pudim - his birth name appears to be a secret - recorded his seminal narrative album Hustlers Convention in 1973, exploring "the seedy side of an eloquent way" as it details the misdaventures of street hustlers Sport and Spoon. Nuriddin ran into bad luck when the record was withdrawn by the releasing label, United Artists, over an apparent dispute with De-Lite, the home label of Kool and the Gang, who had contributed backing music. Nuriddin had had no direct involvement with the music or sound effects on the album himself, which were the work of producer Alan Douglas - "he just wanted me to lay down the lyrics so he could do his thing without me."

The film aims to revive the reputation of the album, but only deals with the issue of its withdrawal glancingly - I'm getting these details from an informative blog post. This points up a major difference between watching a documentary and reading a book on the same topic. Books get into the nitty-gritty; they assume you can follow a story and are interested in its details. Films, even good ones, are worried that your attention will drift if they penetrate to that level. So they keep it airy with lots of talking-head commentary and vague generalities.

I like Hustlers Convention the movie very much, but it commits this sin. The real story of why the album was withdrawn is a mystery that calls out for detective work - digging into record label archives and legal documents. One can categorically state that film documentarians do not do this sort of work. So even though Nuriddin has been on a lifelong "quest to find out who did what, when, where and get to the bottom of the mystery," none of that really comes across. The filmmakers raise the issue briefly and then hurtle right along to the next talking-head snippet.

Those snippets - from Chuck D, Melle Mel, KRS-One, Ice T, and others - are also problematic in their way, but probably essential to how the film was able to get financed and made in the first place (Chuck D is one of the executive producers). Documentary convention requires that there has to be a rising-from-the-dead narrative of how Hustlers Convention the album was "lost" - fair enough, it was - but lived on underground to influence the development of rap and hip-hop - also fair. But the unintended side effect of this narrative is to make the LP seem more important for what it prefigured than for what it is, and to make uncommercial art seem worthy of attention only for its effect on commercial product that a lot more people have heard of.

With respect and appreciation for what director Mike Todd and his collaborators have accomplished here, I have to call foul on that. Historical importance is compelling, but a big part of the Hustlers Convention story is that the album, in its ornery, politically committed splendor, in many ways represents a road not followed. 

Therefore, I like the documentary better when it concentrates on the testimony of the original artists - not just Nuriddin, but also Abiodun Oyewole ("I had bullets for words, and my mouth was my gun"), Umar Bin Hassan, Amde Hamilton, and key side figures such as Sonia Sanchez and Darius James. In a book, they would be the stars, and celebrity opinionating would probably occupy a few paragraphs at most - but here, it must take up at least 25% of the running time.

Fortunately, the film has a lot of meat on its bones anyway, and an infectious energy level. The decision to illustrate extracts from the Hustlers Convention album with animations designed by Esteban Valdez works nicely to the movie's benefit, too.

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