Neil Drumming makes a skillfully scripted debut with this story of three former members of a '90s hip-hop band.
Three members of a promising but short-lived ’90s Brooklyn hip-hop band briefly come together on the evening of Obama’s 2008 election in Neil Drumming’s skillfully scripted, dialogue-driven debut feature, “Big Words.” Happily, the dialogue — natural, vibrant and totally embedded in the moment, never sententious or showoff-y — is delivered with consummate believability by an excellent cast. Playing in various theaters across the country to excellent reviews, “Words” might yet ride the rising wave of new black cinema to reach the wider crossover audiences it deserves.
The three ex-members of DLP (Down Low Poets) haven’t communicated in years, each bearing the scars of their mysterious breakup and struggling with the disillusionment of the intervening 15 years. James, aka “Jayvee Da Mac” (Gbenga Akinnagbe), has made the cleanest break with the past, having abandoned his bogus gangsta-pimp persona to come out of the closet and snag a longtime white boyfriend and a successful if unfulfilling gig as a book publicist. Terry, aka “DJ Malik” (Darien Sills-Evans), stills lives in the bitter shadow of his former dreams, supported by his security-guard wife (Jean Grae) and working as a part-time DJ for a contempo rap scene he despises. John, aka “Big Words” (Dorian Missick), though still obsessively composing lyrics in his head (heard in voiceover), has cynically divorced himself from all musical expression, toiling away thanklessly in the IT sector.
On this 2008 election day, events push the three into memories of bygone days and an eventual, tension-fraught reunion. Terry hears a hit single that he believes plagiarizes a beat he recorded years ago. James’ assistant (Zachary Booth) reveals himself as the son of the band’s former indie record producer. John gets fired and runs into a stripper, Annie (Yaya Alafia), from a club he frequents; she is seriously pursuing a singing career but lacks a professional mic. This last chance meeting triggers the film’s pivotal scenes, as John’s and Annie’s unique, intelligent conversation stands out dramatically from the usual blushingly awkward romantic exchanges.
Annie’s sympathetic but probing questions force John to emerge from his self-protective defeatism, revisit his past and, just possibly, reconsider his options. Yet long-buried resentments explode as the band mates are thrown together, scotching any audience expectations of a harmonious musical resolution.
As for the 2008 election, Drumming subtly relegates it to the background; no “meaningful” sound-bites or apt pronouncements are overheard. The three ex-rappers are too enmeshed in their own problems to pay much attention anyhow, though people around them react with varying degrees of excitement, whites particularly vociferous in their fervent protestations of support. At the same time, post-election street celebrations create a backdrop of rejoicing and solidarity that leaves the film’s denouement nicely open-ended.
Drumming and lenser Cliff Charles opt for intimate, straightforward camera setups in local bars, record stores, apartments and subway cars, eschewing shaky-camera immediacy.