If anyone watches a film with a title like You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You and expects it to be a tour-de-force , he or she needs to learn something about movie titles and the type of movies they’re usually connected to. That should already color one’s perception of the movie, but even though it’s a rather pedestrian horror film there’s a bit here worth looking at.
After two rappers are murdered in New York City and their bodies are left with chilling notes next to them, the media and most of the police want to chalk the murders up to yet another feud between rappers (I always thought it was hilarious that they are called “beefs”… slang is so stupid sometimes). Detective Johnson (James McDaniel) is an aging, no-nonsense African-American homicide detective who thinks its the work of a serial killer. If he’s right it seems that rap star Manchild (Nashawn Kearse), who is on the verge of a career breakthrough, is the next target. Unfortunately, Johnson’s list of suspects if far longer, and Manchild isn’t cooperating, as he’s having his own issues trying to justify being involved in such an ugly industry.
As you might guess, it just so happens to be a week before Johnson’s retirement (isn’t it always?) and he’s paired up Detective Francelli (Michael Mosley), an investigator who specializes in crimes involving rappers. Francelli is at first played for laughs — he’s that guy you know who is as white as Wonder Bread but talks about rap music like it’s part of his ethnic heritage. Naturally Johnson has no understanding of rap music as if he has never heard of an entire genre of music before (although his troubled son is far more interested in rap than his schoolwork). Francelli seems to be a riff on the token black guy in movies with primarily white casts, so I can appreciate what writer/director Michael A. Pinckney is going for along with the convincing way Mosley plays him, even if it is a bit over the top at times.
That’s good, because the acting isn’t typically up to par — McDaniel and Mosley are solid, but many of the peripheral characters have an amateur “hey, want to be in my movie?” quality that is often seen in student films. And certainly there are cut corners, like the generic establishing shots of Manhattan that pad the length of the film (we GET it, it takes place in Manhattan!). Those are excusable. What’s inexcusable is advertising the names of Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, and The Wire and Boardwalk Empire star Michael Kenneth Williams on the poster and DVD cover. Collectively the appearances of these men make up about five minutes of screentime, with Williams’ taking the cake since he’s murdered in the movie’s first three minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. So is putting executive producer Spike Lee‘s name in large letters. While Pinckney is a longtime collaborator with Lee and this movie’s arguments about hip hop culture conform to a lot of what Lee has said in the past, but this is no Spike Lee Joint (I did appreciate the poster in Manchild’s apartment that is a reference to the “Da Bomb” drink from Lee’s Bamboozled).
In fact, the movie’s arguments about rap are buried because of its reliance on well-worn horror film conventions. That’s unfortunate, because Pinckney seems to have quite a bit to say about how hip hop culture’s glorification of criminal activity raises the stakes so high that rappers have to be incarcerated or dead via violent means to make a name for themselves. In fact, it’s almost like Pinckney wanted to make a film about the cultural problems associated with rappers killing each other but decided to go in a more commercial direction instead. I can’t fault him for doing so for obvious reasons — it is his first film he’s directed and he’s probably hoping for a hit. But I’ve would’ve liked to have seen the movie he wanted to make if my theory is correct. Hopefully this movie finds some success, because I’m really interested in what else Pinckney has to say on film.
Rating: Smarter than the average horror film, but not as smart as it could or should be (5/10).