When Don Imus' slur-heard-round-the-world became a referendum on hip-hop's treatment of women, warring partisans unwilling to find common ground with the opposing camp dominated the debate. On one side sat myopic hip-hop defenders for whom rap was all about poetry, self-expression, and uplifting the disenfranchised. On the other came haters for whom rap was about nothing more profound or positive than felons bragging about punching pregnant women in the face while selling drugs. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, but the earnest new documentary The Hip Hop Project should give plenty of ammo to hip-hop's embattled defenders, who are apt to feel a little like the last holdouts at the Alamo these days.
A big, wet, sloppy valentine to hip-hop's power to give voice to the voiceless, the film follows a well-intentioned program designed to empower poor black New York kids by letting them express themselves through rap. The film centers on the project's charismatic leader, Kazi, and his prize pupils: Princess, a young spitfire whose signature song offers an unflinching look at getting an abortion; and Cannon, a troubled young wordsmith devastated by his mother's death from multiple sclerosis.
Director Matt Ruskin fetishizes his subjects' youth and vitality, transforming them into music-video-ready icons and hip-hop gods before establishing them as human beings. Fortunately, The Hip Hop Project eventually gets around to providing substance to go along with its distracting flash, as its subjects wrestle with deeply personal issues while trying to put together an album. The film is queasily voyeuristic at times, especially during a heart-wrenching reunion sequence in which Kazi's mom doggedly refuses to provide the closure and absolution for which her vulnerable son desperately longs. Project provides an unmistakably one-sided view of rap as God's gift to the poor, angry, black, and young, but given the beating rap has taken in the press lately (please Oprah, don't hurt 'em!), the film's pro-rap cheerleading couldn't be more timely or necessary.