In 'Spinal Tap' tradition, 'Fear' ribs rap

July 29, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Fear of a Black Hat," opening today at the Charles, is a kind of rap "This is Spinal Tap!" Yes, I know that "CB4" was supposed to be a rap "This Is Spinal Tap!" Well, neither film is, but "Fear of a Black Hat" comes a lot closer.

Written and directed and starring Rusty Cundieff, who has worked with Spike Lee and wrote "House Party II" for Kid n' Play, it's a vividly conceived mock documentary which follows a not terribly good rap group called N.W.H. through good times (a No. 1 hit) and bad (breakup). Even if you're only cursorily acquainted with the rap scene, you'll note familiar strains.

Sequences from recent rap history and iconography are re-enacted or re-created with comic inversion: attempts at censorship, macho posturing between groups, tasteless music videos, the debasing treatment of women, the sense of increasingly spurious self-justification, the ever-present feature of white management.

The best thing about the film is the universality of its contempt: Cundieff sees fools and fakes everywhere, not just in a single community, and is just as apt to go after African-American delusions as European-American ones.

The music video parodies are the single most amusing aspect to "Fear of a Black Hat," complete with hilariously tasteless lyrics calculated to incite sensation, spectacularly bad dancing, and artistic pretensions that are comically fragile in their fraudulence.

I think Cundieff misses one big opportunity, though. In "Tap," filmmaker Rob Reiner played himself as the documentary director and interviewer, and got a great deal of humor out of his own inability to "get it." Cundieff is much less resourceful. His reporter is the excellent actress Kasi Lemmons (she was Jodie Foster's pal in "Silence of the Lambs"), but Lemmons plays it quite straight, and Cundieff lacks either the nerve or the inclination to go after her.

"Fear of a Black Hat"

Starring Rusty Cundieff and Kasi Lemmons

Directed by Rusty Cundieff

Released by Goldwyn

Rated R

** 1/2

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