Letter to the President

I caught Thomas Gibson’s Letter to the President (Amazon) last night at Filmfest DC as part of their Hip Hop 4 Reel series. Letter offers an overview of the political and social history of hip hop from its formation in the Reagan era through the 2004 election (the film was completed before Hurricane Katrina), specifically focusing on the socially conscious hip hop artists and their response to various forms of social injustice, including police brutality, the Iran-Contra affair (and its relationship to the crack epidemic), censorship, racial profiling (driving while black), and the prison-for-profit programs that essentially use prisoners as free labor. The film also explores a Miami Herald article that exposed the practice of several police forces of monitoring hip hop artists. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from some of hip hop’s excesses, including the misogyny of some aspects of hip hop culture. Gibson and his producer, Trinh Banh, have also assembled a welth of interviews with prominent hip hop artists, politicians, and academics, including KRS-One, Common, 50 Cent, Chuck D, Maxine Waters, Amiri Baraka, and Michael Eric Dyson (among many others). But the film and the discussion afterwards with the producer Banh raised a number of interesting–and sometimes unresolved–questions.

In particular, I found that the film didn’t have a clear narrative voice. While Snoop Dogg’s voice-over gave the documentary flavor and the filmmaker clearly seemed invested in the project, the film itself seemed a little unfocused, with the film moving too quickly across this 25-30 year history. In particular, further exploration of the socially-conscious rap of the late 1980s-early 1990s would have been valuable, especially in its connection to police brutality, as would some connections between rap and other forms of popular culture. Further exploration of P. Diddy’s Vote or Die campaign might also have been helpful. There was an interesting montage in which many of his fans discuss their plans to vote, almost exclusively for John Kerry, and while the film does address the disillusionment of many voters when the Democratic candidate lost, even more exploration of the difficulties of sustaining political activism would have been valuable. As always, documentaries such as Letter are valuable simply because they assemble archival materials that might otherwise be lost or forgotten (in that sense, I’m looking forward to seeing the Smithsonian hip hop collection)

That being said, the film does an effective job of exploring many of these questions. Wyclef Jean, in particuar, was attentive to the fact that a heavy work burden often makes it difficult to sustain the energy to work for a candidate or a specific political cause. Add to that long voting lines, often far longer than in predominantly white, suburban precincts. But the strength of the film is its collaborative tone, the contributions of the interviewers who not only describe the history of hip hop but also theorize its social significance and attempt to imagine where it will go in the future. Here, Snop Dogg’s narration seems most fitting as he speaks personally about hip hop and the contributions it can make without the professional veneer of a voice-of-god narration. At the same time, the film subtly theorized the economics of hip hop, the question of whether hip hop artists can be politically transgressive when they are signed to major labels and do not own the means of production. While this issue could have been explored further, it provoked an interesting discussion after the film. In that sense, perhaps Letter’s greatest strength is that it raised a number of valuable questions, even if many of them emerged afterwards in discussion and dialogue afterwards.

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