Artisan // 2003 // 87 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // October 1st, 2003
For two brothers, trouble is a way of life
While living in Selma, Alabama, two tough brothers are hit with some very bad news: their mother, who lives in Chicago, is dying. So they head to the Windy City in hopes of reconciling with her before the inevitable occurs. However, once they arrive, Terry and Jeffery learn the truth: their mother is an unrepentant crack addict. Hoping to get her some much needed help, as well as jumpstarting their career in hip-hop, the boys reluctantly agree to stay. Jeffrey, AKA Rhythm, brings his girlfriend and child up to stay. Terry, AKA Soundmaster T, immediately immerses himself in the local rap scene. It's not long before Rhythm is a miserable married man while his workaholic brother has the duo hooked up with a major label. For Jeffrey, a simple life of drug dealing and carjacking keeps beckoning. But when a nomadic bad man named Turk ingratiates himself with the pair, he begins to undermine their lives. He has Terry beaten and shot and then rapes Jeffrey's now wife. And while they are battling their mother and her narcotics demon, they each have to face hospitalization, incarceration, and even the possibility of death. Tragedy is always around the corner, even as a successful career in music seems inevitable. As tempers flare and betrayals are discovered, a collision course with crime highlights the emotions and ethos involved. It's all about anger, rage, and revenge. And it's all about what it sounds like When Thugs Cry.
Though the genre isn't really all that old, the urban gangsta rap drama has already developed a very pat set of formulas, clichés, and stereotypes that are mandated to appear in every screenplay by any wannabe cinematic street poet for his first foray into filmmaking. First, there has to be drugs. Unlike the contemporary Hollywood take on the ghetto, independent movie makers throw crack, heroin, pot, cocaine, and PCP around like character actors, using them to fill in narrative gaps. Don't know how to get scene 32 to link with subplot C? Easy, add someone doing bong hits or horse in the rectum and you've got instant mise en scène. And if there's narcotics, there has to be nogoodniks trying to bogart them. And then, therefore, there has to be crime. Lots of crime! Criploads and blood banks of crime. Unless the grandmamma and "auntie" figures in the film are packing heat and jacking "G"s on the side, it's just not a slice of real freestyle livin' da life. In these raptaculars, people gots to get shot, brothers gots to get bled, homies gots to get paid, and bee-atches gots to get beat. Finally, there must be a loud, raucous, in-yo-face, and out-yo-ass street beat soundtrack filled with angry words and even angrier music. Nothing subtle like Snoop or political like Public Enemy. This beat poetry has to be as brash and vicious as the characters making it: rhymes kickin' like a pumped up Uzi and hammers bangin' like traffic cop's nightsticks on a profiled passerby's head. The fact that all these angles have become tired and worn out means that many young, hungry filmmakers are stuck paying for the sins of their predecessors. Maybe they could take a lesson from Parris Reaves. In his film When Thugs Cry, he doesn't try and break the mold: he relishes it. Indeed, this is one hardcore joint that super sizes each and every one of the staid scenarios.
When Thugs Cry is very unoriginal. Two brothers fighting each other and their drug addled mother, hoping to make it in a business where everyone's simultaneously an ally and enemy, hoping to avoid violence but using it to solve their problems? Doesn't sound like a shocking, groundbreaking view of urban life, does it? But thanks to some very organic performances and a subtle eye for composition, Reaves makes up for the hackneyed premise and trite characters with raw, vibrant intensity. Sometimes it does all seem very manufactured and melodramatic (the scenes where Momma Love has her cocaine jags are straight out of comic books, not Compton). But other times, Jah-Rista and Soundmaster T come across as confused, charismatic siblings with talent and torment to spare. Even during moments of made-up menace, they have a look and feel of the street that a great many modern stories (even when they contain actual ghetto-ites) just can't capture. One of the reasons When Thugs Cry works is that it never once tries to be more than the sum of its tried and true chestnuts. In essence, it strives to be the quintessential example of said. And while this can make for many bumps on the entertainment roadway (meaning characters have to stupidly OD, promise redemption, get raped, and shoot innocents), it also gives the film a professional narrative drive that constantly propels us to an inevitable final confrontation. About the only place When Thugs Cry fails is in its finale. The whole Swamp Family business comes out of left field and then the last couple of scenes only suggests an ending, not specifically name or explain one. Still, for a movie like this to succeed when so many others have tried and failed speaks a lot for the talent and tenacity involved.
So leave it to the farts at Arts to derail this DVD release by giving it as a bare bones, sub par presentation that fails to flesh out the film properly. All we get is a trailer...a very nice, comprehensive trailer, but a single trailer none the less. No commentary. No discography. No rap lyrics and/or separate audio tracks. Just the movie and an ad for it. From the packaging, we get the impression that Reaves has been in the business for years (he is referred to as "veteran guerrilla filmmaker") and yet we would never know that from the disc itself. An essay insert of selected filmography would have been nice here. (An Internet article indicates he has made three previous feature films.) Still, one does have to praise the DVD for its sound and vision. When Thugs Cry does have a stellar hard-edged rap score, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround captures it perfectly. There is a little distortion in the high end, but this may be due to mastering issues in the music, since all the dialogue is fine. Unfortunately, the available tracks seem limited to three or four, and if you don't like them the first time, you will definitely not like them the many times they are used throughout the film. Visually, When Thugs Cry looks homemade with an explicit independent appearance to its cinematography and visual style. The full screen transfer captures this nicely with little grain or compression issues. And since Reaves' style is more point and shoot than carefully created and framed compositions, the lack of an anamorphic widescreen transfer is understandable and not really missed. Even though it is very "by the book," When Thugs Cry makes that particular piece of lawless literature legible again. It's no great work of art. But it's no raging Restinghini either.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Illinois Entertainer Parris Reaves Interview