Though he never fails to "represent," Judge Bill Gibron feels that this well-intentioned film from Australian director Julian Dahl marginalizes its otherwise masterful subject matter—the L.A. Underground hip-hop scene.
A Significant Social Statement Buried Inside an Unnecessary Comedy
A pair of pathetic independent filmmaking wannabes decides to make a "ghetto" version of a famous Greek tragedy and drags a couple of professional actresses (known as "The Gangsta Sistas") out into a dilapidated crack house. While in this disenfranchised part of the 'hood shooting some additional scenes, they run across a trio of toughs. Mistaking them for felonious gangbangers, they immediately turn and run away. In truth, the guys were just curious about what they were doing. But now, with camera equipment and a production van at their disposal, these self-styled artists decide to make their own damn movie. Focusing on the L.A. Underground movement in rap and hip-hop, the newly labeled Camjackers hope to expose the bevy of talent and wisdom inherent in the culture. As soon as they finish, however, a run-in with the cops sees the material confiscated. When they discover that the wussy white boys have plagiarized their efforts, with the dastardly duo ending up unwarranted media darlings, the group plans a little metaphysical payback.
Imagine if you crossed one of those lame black vs. white urban "comedies" with an absolutely brilliant dissertation on the L.A. Underground hip-hop scene and you've got just a small idea of the schizophrenic nature of Julian Dahl's Camjackers. Half the film is a stirring look at how the West Coast rap scene, with its attention to old-school concepts like graffiti, breakdancing, and politicized rhetoric, has come to define and shape that community. The other portion is a less-than-successful satire in which a couple of dorky faux filmmakers stumble upon a group of young minorities—and decide that the best way to respond to such a situation is to run away like losers. This then sets up the primary premise—that this collective of disenfranchised voices (black, mixed race, male, female) is better at seeking out the truth in the varied world of the ghetto than a couple of wannabe "playas." And their efforts couldn't be more convincing. Without a doubt, the material presented here as part of the "film within a film" ideal is breathtaking. Voices as varied as the people who own them make startling, stellar statements about the way of the world circa 2006, and provide more insight and intelligence on the subject of race than any group of so-called scholars. For them, it's more than rhetoric. It's real.
It's just too bad then that Australian director Julian Dahl didn't have more faith in this material. He could have easily gotten away with a 90-minute documentary on the L.A. Underground and come up with a massive mainstream winner. All the people presented here—iconic voices with names like Aceyalone, 2 Mex, Medusa, Life Rexall, and Evolve—are so eloquent, so completely captivating in the message and the means upon which they present it, that you can't help but be won over. It's not a matter of the standard rap stances, though there's lots of anger and position-taking going on. No, what Dahl captures is the voice of a new, more knowledgeable generation, a group of individuals of varying ages and backgrounds all celebrating the emergence of the complete hip-hop culture. It's refreshing to see reverence for modern-day "taggers," whose work is much more artistic than some of the self-indulgent canvases you see hanging in various galleries. It's also exciting to hear these artists celebrating the past—both the good and the gratuitous—as it helps them to formulate and forward their new, more awareness-oriented offerings. You can't help but hear the insight and vision in the various raps, rhymes, and slams showcased.
Luckily, this material is so magnificent that it helps wash away the weakness of the other plotpoints presented. Granted, the "camjackers" narrative line is likeable, especially since the performers—Phoenix Orion, Olinda Fonesca, Shante Reese, Cody Luchich, and Darkzeied—are so commanding onscreen. Darkzeied in particular is so forceful, his size and sonorous voice like that of an Olympian, that you're sad when he disappears for most of the last act. There are also instances where the POV filmmaking process fails the film. When the "camjackers" are arguing over who is responsible for what, or whether they should pawn the equipment or use it to make a movie, the conversations can quickly degenerate into complete chaos. Possible funny lines and humorous insights get washed away in a pool of overlapped yelling. Even worse are the incredibly stupid sequences involving what the movie calls "the whack filmmakers." Trading on every superfluous stereotype possible, everything about the proposed "ghetto version of a Greek tragedy" just doesn't work. It might be a more acceptable way of getting the equipment in the hands of the kids (the similarly styled Gang Tapes offered up a much more violent variation), but it adds nothing to the narrative.
Still, there is enough here to appreciate and marvel over, making Camjackers a stirring independent offering. It is never as funny as it thinks it is (much of the PR material pushes it as Christopher Guest meets Crimestoppers) and tends to lose its way when the ending calls for a concocted comeuppance for our Caucasian creeps. But it's those amazing voices, those new-style sages who preach positivism and challenge that make this film so fascinating. They provide considerable goodwill carryover across the story's stupider situations. If you're at all interested in the future of hip-hop, if you want to know what goes on behind the scenes of the cold, corporate world of modern rap, if you realize that there is more to the culture than bling, biz-nitches, and bullets, then by all means, give Camjackers a try. But be ready with the remote. Some of the material here tries to undermine the movie's more substantive strategies.
Provided to DVD Verdict in a semi-screener DVD approach, the technical elements offered are actually pretty good. The 1.78:1 widescreen image (non-anamorphic, unfortunately) looks excellent, loaded with bright colors while avoiding many of the frequent flaws (bleeding, flaring, whiting out) that come with a digital production. Equally impressive is the Dolby Digital Stereo mix that magnifies the musical score (which itself is a wonder of hardcore hip-hop heaviness) while keeping the conversations crystal clear. While the disc itself only contains a trailer, an EPK package was provided to this critic, and most of that material should be included on any mainstream DVD release. From the sensational soundtrack selections to various bios and mission statements, a great deal of this information would help flesh out this film's purpose.
Though the comedy is coarse and rather routine, Camjackers still stands as a sensational look at a secret section of the emerging new school hip-hop community. It would be a shame to miss out on its message because of some lame laughs. As the song said, free your mind and the rest will follow.
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Scales of Justice
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