Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop's long journey from stage and prison-stage to the big screen and now DVD has been tumultuous. The film's original release plans were wildly ambitious: To help generate anticipation and buzz for the movie, Danny Hoch first released 1999's Whiteboyz, a muddled satire of racial and hip-hop politics spun off from one of Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop's characters. But Whiteboyz died a quick commercial death, and one-time underground-rap standard-bearer Rawkus abandoned its plan to release Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop and its soundtrack. The film was just barely released in New York and L.A., and now it's being inauspiciously shuffled onto a no-frills DVD. The film certainly deserves better, but its shabby treatment by a label that once symbolized all that was promising and pure about underground hip-hop only serves to validate its critique of the genre's callousness and greedwhich is, ironically, its weakest aspect.
In a move that simultaneously highlights its theatrical origins and renders it more thrillingly cinematic, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop alternates between documentary footage of Hoch performing his one-man show for often captive audiences, and filmed dramatizations that transform it into a series of interconnected short films. Like many chameleons, Hoch seems most comfortable when he's hiding behind masks, using his uncanny mastery of accents, dialects, and body language to embody unforgettable characters. These include an angry, divorced prison guard nearly as damaged by the brutality of the prison system as his charges, and an AIDS-ravaged prisoner whose comic discourse on economics, freedom, class, and healthy living steadily devolves into a cry of existential despair. As long as the film focuses on jails and hospitals, its grasp on its material is sure, strong, and humane. But its take on hip-hop is a lot shakier, too dependent on the kind of stereotypesthe deluded white wanna-b-boy, the cynical, opportunistic superstarthat Hoch usually excels at deflating or humanizing. And the only sequence in which Hoch plays himselfto tell an extended anecdote about being asked to play a Hispanic pool boy on Seinfeldhas an air of self-aggrandizement that's only partially negated by the self-deprecation of its bitter punchline.
Still, for all its flaws and its occasional overreaching, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop qualifies as a poignant, touching, sociologically astute, kinetic, and gorgeously filmed tour de force. Hoch's labor of love, which he wrote and co-directed, spent years gathering dust, but as long as prisons continue to be built faster than schools, and rampant inequities and social, class, and racial schisms persist, the film's compassionate, sensitive take on capitalism's collateral damage will remain timely and relevant.