Hustlers Convention is the landmark 1973 album by Lightnin’ Rod, aka. Jalal Nurridin, founding member of The Last Poets and the grandfather of modern day rap. It is also the new film from British film-maker Mike Todd.
The legendary album, a lengthy mythological spoken word rap about hustlers and crime and doing time takes us deep into the heart of the language of the streets of New York City, of the origins of Hustlin’ and music’s becoming the beating drum against injustice and inequality. The story of the album is also the story of its time and its people, and through this film (with a bit of digging) it’s possible to draw a direct line back through rap to its beginnings in the vernacular of the streets during the fight for equal rights.
Mike Todd has assembled all of the right ingredients for a fantastic film – we have interviews with some of the greats of modern rap (Ice T, Chuck D (also Executive Producer), KRS-One and Lemn Sissay (though only relevant to the story as an after-thought, it is his gig in Liverpool that sees the comeback recital of Hustlers Convention) among others), we have access to the man himself, in both archive footage and today in his seventies, we even have access to the rest of The Last Poets and finally, the album itself – the problem is, Todd doesn’t do very much all of this incredible material. One gets the impression that Todd has a very deep love of the material and its history, and for the people involved, but this is doesn’t come through very clearly in the film. I feel he should have told us more, shown us more. And given the resources he had, this would have been easily done.
The album is played in parts throughout the film, and listening to it now it’s evocative language and narrative are as startling now as they must have been 42 years ago, and there is even footage of Jalal performing the piece in Liverpool. The problem with this is that the studio recording of the album is set to, well, pretty weak animation. I’ve seen animation work in biopics before, in Cobain: Montage of Heck the artistic style of the animation is fantastic, and in Howl the animation is as stylised as the poem is abstract, and in both of those films the animation brings something out in the material that we’d not likely see without it, some sort of meaning that the visuals prize from the recordings. In Hustlers Convention the animation cheapens the recording to the point of b-grade cartoon, without even the Jive of a Bakshi or, as we are shown in the film, Dolemite. What we get instead is a wonderful recording reduced to its most ordinary components by shoddy and cliched artwork.
This is not to say the films fails, even though it does its central object a disservice – far from it. It’s just that for every good thing Todd does with the film, and there are many of them, there is one element to each of these things that really holds it back, that scuppers the great idea with a not very good one. The animation is a great example but there are others. Todd has interviewed some legends for this film but seemed to use only the clips of them saying the same things about the same things. We know the album is legendary, we don’t need all of the interviewees to tell us throughout the film, we know The Last Poets were fighting injustice through music and rapping, yet again we are told this numerous times in numerous different by all the different people – after a while the interviews get a little dull and we wish Jalal would be back on screen as listening to him is fantastic. Listening to him talk about the origins of the “toast” and the origins of street language is wonderful. Ice T seems to be the only one of the interviewees with a real grasp of what is required here (he is an old hand at this type of thing anyway) and while the others are welcome, he is the only who seems willing to explore the film with us and not merely tell us what we’ve already been told.
The one thing that really holds this film together is the music and the man who created it, Jalal. We see him in archive footage during the Civil Rights movement channelling the spirit of Malcolm X through Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, we see him rapping and rhyming (he speaks in rhyme to explore the truth of language and intentions) and then we see him now, living in what appears to be an old age home but probably isn’t, hat and glasses permanently in place, still toasting and rapping like he did in the 70s. Through Jalal, Todd tells us the story of the album, how it became the first million-seller through word -of-mouth alone, how it became an underground classic even after Kool And The Gang took less than kindly to having their music associated with it, how it’s remained little known and yet has inspired generations of rappers since.
So while Todd’s film presents us the parts but doesn’t really string them together (the opening shot of a bus going through Camden is as out of place as it sounds) it doesn’t impact the film too negatively; there is still enough here to fascinate and hearing the album again and seeing its context is well worth the price of admission alone. That we get to hear extensively from Jalal towards the end of the film, and hear how he still hasn’t lost the fight after all these is wonderful.
Though I was a little disappointed with the film, seeing it as I did after Nelson’s masterful Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution which has a similar theme and covers similar ground, Lightnin’ Rod was at the screening for the Q&A afterwards and seeing him speak more than made up for any deficiencies the film had. He still speaks in rhyme, and at a speed and clarity that is astonishing. The simplest answer to a basic question would become some sort of labyrinthine epic poem made up on the fly that had the sparse crowd (disappointing for a premiere) enthralled. I only wish I had recorded it because it was the highlight of the screening.
Director: Mike Todd
Writer: Mike Todd
Stars: Ice-T, Chuck D., Omar Ben Hassan
Runtime: 96 mins
Country: USA, UK, France
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