Rappin’ (1985)

When it comes to exploiting Reagan/Bush-era trends, few figures loom larger than director Joel Silberg, whose films deal with such topical fare as breakdancing (1984’s Breakin’), professional wrestling (1986’s Bad Guys), and the notorious “forbidden dance” (1990’s Lambada). Silberg’s Rappin’ casts Mario Van Peebles as an ex-con turned unlikely leader, this time a rhyme-happy good Samaritan so delighted to be released from lockdown that he lets loose with some impromptu breakdancing moves. Nicknamed “Rappin’ Hood” because of his predilection for rhyming couplets, Van Peebles reunites with a group of similarly reformed-yet-rhyme-loving colleagues, then heads to a nightclub where conflicts are settled through breakdancing rather than violence. But violence soon rears its head in the form of Charles Flohe, a swaggering hood who leads a group of oily-haired, leather-jacket-wearing toughs apparently recruited from a touring production of Grease. While Flohe attempts to bait the wholesome ex-con into returning to his old ways, Van Peebles sets about improving his community through impromptu freestyles covering everything from friendship to snack consumption to colors. Although reluctant to pursue rap professionally, Van Peebles accidentally earns a producer’s attention during a social visit to a studio, where he breaks up a fight with a temperance-themed rhyme equally inspired by Kurtis Blow and Carrie Nation. Impressed, the producer offers him a whopping $200 to record a demo, which the rapper accepts only because it’s almost exactly enough to keep his crime-prone brother out of jail. Alas, the brother ends up behind bars, the victim of a conspiracy between Flohe and a greedy real-estate developer who wants to buy up much of the neighborhood and displace its current residents. But greedy real-estate developers are no match for a community united in rhyme. Empowered, Van Peebles heroically interrupts a city-council meeting and delivers a bravura anti-gentrification freestyle that puts a brisk end to the developer’s plans. Overjoyed, Van Peebles swaggers through the street, leading the rest of the cast in a film-capping rap capturing the transformative power of what Rappin’s tagline presciently describes as “the street sensation that's sweeping the nation!”

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