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The Hip Hop Project

For all the energy and social relevance of hip-hop, The Hip Hop Project turns into a boring, self-promotional documentary. Unfortunately, this is a Hallmark version of hip-hop—and it really hurts to knock this film.


Let us thank Bruce Willis and Russell Simmons for The Hip Hop Project . They packaged an overlooked social program for public consumption, hinting we are indebted to these 50-plus-year-old corporate behemoths. Along with fellow producer Queen Latifah, Willis and Simmons have their fingers on the pulse of youth. Project's main character is Kazi, a New York rapper/entrepreneur who has built a youth assistance group called Art Start in Manhattan, an award-winning place for teens to channel their energies into music and art. Providing the film's arc, they are assembling a CD, which rises above the violent conventions of the music. Abandoned as a child in the Bahamas, Kazi is an underdog and has been his entire life. The problem is he's unaccomplished as a hip-hop artist, with little natural musical skill. Kazi's tortured background fuels his plaintive inspiration for the art groups he puts together, but we don't learn much about him on a deeper level. More broadly, the illumination of hip-hop's depth is limited.


The documentary follows the lives of Kazi's students/class members, who describe their experiences growing up poor in New York. And like many hip-hop musicians, these kids have performance alter egos who command the camera, as in 2005's Rize. The Hip Hop Project cast knows they are depicting a story of rising up against tough circumstances. What's so crushing is knowing that Kazi – along with friends Princess and Cannon – aren't playing a role. The inspiration is real, and their faces and body language belie the truths. But the visual storytelling is so trite that these characters, who are actually real people, seem tiresome and self-important.


The trudging pace makes one doubt how much the director Matt Ruskin, a first-time director and editor, knows about hip hop. The film's message and significance are widely overstated and generalized. Beyond languid camera shots, there is little aid given to our protagonists. The Hip Hop Project has some grass-roots legitimacy (A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip co-produced), but the documentary seems to squander the spirit of the music – and comes across as an overt attempt at self-promotion for Bruce Willis and Russell Simmons. About 45 minutes in, the film shifts perspectives from a wandering pastiche of personal stories to a glad-handing press event. If the film set up enough reason to care about the characters, the promotion might not be a problem. But you'll soon realize you've been duped into watching a cinematic infomercial. Very disappointing.

Bottom Line rated this film 1 1/2 stars.