Fresh Dressed (2015)

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fourstar

I can’t say with full honesty that I know enough about fashion to truly weigh in on a documentary on the subject, but I have enjoyed a few films like Iris & Paris is Burning that touch on the genre. Fresh Dressed was a little more of an easy entry point for me than those examples (although not nearly as spellbinding as the beyond-reproach Paris is Burning) because it approaches fashion from a pop music perspective. Chronicling the evolution of where fashion fits in as an integral element of hip hop culture, Fresh Dressed is simultaneously a fun nostalgia trip through bygone eras of oldschool rap (not unlike Ed Piskor’s brilliant Hip Hop Family Tree comic book series) and a necessary history lesson in the evolution of modern black identity as expressed artistically through clothing. The documentary has the distinct feeling of giving credit where it’s due, finally exalting a subject that would’ve casually been brushed off as frivolity in the past & spotlighting some of the underserved artists who have been long forgotten as cultural pioneers.

Fresh Dressed establishes a solid foundational layer by beginning its story long before hip hop was even a concept. Mapping out how the pristinely immaculate church clothes of even the poorest of America’s black communities would later be reflected in the flashy garb of jazz & blues singers, Fresh Dressed logically explains the history of fashion as a prime component of modern black identity. Hip hop is explained as a starting point where black fashion took on a D.I.Y. punk context, openly rebelling against the cops & whites that conspired against black people, especially the youth, through institutionalized oppression. Biker fashion, gang insignia, black pride militarization, and external displays of pride in personal wealth all complicated & varied the boundaries of what hip hop fashion could mean as well as what it could look like. At a certain point in time you could tell what neighborhood a person was from (in NYC, obv) based on what they were wearing, but things got much more disparate & more interesting from there and watching a culture develop through the hallmarks of its clothing is a lot of what makes Fresh Dressed a delight.

Documentaries like this often live or die by the strength of their talking head interviewees and Fresh Dressed indeed has a stacked deck of willing participants: Kanye West, Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Pharell, etc. There’s also a wealth of great photographs, video clips and (duh) music to back up its fashion retrospective narrative, making the film a fun ride while still an informative one. Fresh Dressed doesn’t have the same temporal advantage of films like the similarly-minded graffiti doc Style Wars, as it’s documenting a movement & a subset of oral history interview subjects long after their heyday, requiring it to rely on archival footage & word of mouth to construct its narrative. As the story develops, the film also loses a little steam as hip hop fashion loses its credibility as a D.I.Y. punk aesthetic and becomes a marketable big business commodity. It’s worth noting, too, that its narrow focus on heterosexual male fashion in the hip hop community often treats female & queer perspectives as an afterthought, which is a shame given those groups’ contributions to fashion innovation over the decades. All that considered, Fresh Dressed is still a wonderful history lesson in a topic that’s rarely treated with the level of respect it deserves. At the very least the film is a museum in motion, with nearly every document of hip hop fashion’s past just aching to be screengrabbed & converted into Tumblr posts. There are certainly less worthy modes of fashion documentation than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Dope (2015)

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threehalfstar

If you’ve seen the ads for Dope, it’d be forgivable if you mistakenly assumed the film was set in the early 90s. Very much conscious of its use of that visual palette, Dope is smart to declare itself set in 2015 from the get go, opening the film with the protagonist Malcolm explaining to his mother how Bitcoins work. For every 90s-soaked skateboard, flat top hairdo, and A Tribe Called Quest music cue, Dope also features references to memes, smart phones, and online black markets, presumably so you don’t lose track of exactly when the film is set. The reason for all the 90s cultural markers is fairly straight-forward: it’s been long enough that the era has been deemed vintage cool, at least by the three high school geek main characters. Of course, since they were but young pups during the 90s, their understanding of the era is flimsy at best, as hilariously skewered by A$AP Rocky (making his acting debut here) within the film in his role as Dom, a drug dealer who sets the plot’s wheels in motion, in one of the movie’s more amusing & self-aware exchanges.

Dope is the coming-of-age story of three high school geeks who are used to pursuing good grades unexpectedly getting suckered into selling drugs. Set in a neighborhood called “The Bottoms”, a particularly rough area of Inglewood, CA, the protagonists are basically just trying to survive. Of course, because they are teenagers, they’re also trying to look cool & get laid, which complicates the task at hand at nearly every turn. Dope has a lot to say about racial identity, social inequality, and teen sexuality, but at its heart it’s really just a sweet story about three awkward high school students finding themselves having to grow up very quickly (due to a misplaced hand gun & an enormous bag of drugs). The movie doesn’t get everything right in the details (the trio’s “punk band” plays songs hilariously over-produced by Pharrell), but it’s mostly on point in capturing a very specific cultural subset that’s never received the big screen treatment before.

Watching Dope, I was reminded of my experience with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, except with the manga & video game references swapped out for 90s hip-hop. I enjoyed the film, but like with Scott Pilgrim. I’m certain that a very specific target audience of younger folks are going to latch onto it much, much more enthusiastically than I ever could. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be someone out there’s favorite film, if nothing else because they’ve never seen themselves represented on the screen before. Where I see a fairly funny, vibrantly shot high school movie with wonderfully eccentric moments & a killer soundtrack (the Pharrell songs excluded), I expect someone else will see The Greatest Movie of All Times Forever.  Even if that’s all the movie accomplishes, that’s still pretty dope.

-Brandon Ledet