Post-Modernity and Human Rights Activists in Latin American Cinema


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My last of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble in relation to post-modernity and human rights activists in Latin American Cinema.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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“You can say a story is fabricated. You can say a jury is corrupt. You can say a person is lying. You can say you don’t trust newspapers. But you can’t say what you just saw never happened” (Speakers, 1). This is the message written in WITNESS’s promotional video, an organization co-founded by Genesis musician Peter Gabriel that encourages worldwide human rights activists to make changes through the use of video. This objective reflects Gabriel’s message that an event should be captured by an activist to expose injustice and reveal the truth. Relating to the general topic of Latin American Cinema, three filmmakers will be discussed in relation to Peter Gabriel’s solution for truth: Vicki Funari, Sergio De La Torre, directors of the 2006 film Maquilapolis and Pamela Yates, director of the 1984 film When the Mountains Tremble. The main difference between the directors of each film is that Yates, unlike Funari and De La Torre, Yates, is a New York citizen and an outsider from Latin America, but they nonetheless share the same concern for each film’s subject matter. When the Mountains Tremble documents the horrific genocide of the Mayan civilians by the Guatemalan army while Maquilapolis documents the lives of maquiladora workers who are experiencing the weakening effects of the toxic industrial waste of the factories.

Both films challenge social justice while also being part of the post-modern era of documentary filmmaking. As theorist Linda Williams describes it, post-modern documentaries share the earnest approach to a subject as always but the truth is constructed by docu-auteurs who whether on or off camera have control of the shots (Williams, 104) and as writer Gloria Galindo expands on Williams’ theory, this style borrows features from fiction film in their construction (Galindo, 83). Integrating Peter Gabriel’s message of truth with Linda William’s theory of post-modernity, Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble are films that represent truth by being made in collaboration with human rights activists while the filmmakers construct the film with a post-modern approach by blurring the lines of documentary and fiction. To write chronologically, I will begin the development of my thesis with When the Mountains Tremble. 

Theorist Teresa Longo expresses the same concern I explained earlier: When the Mountains Tremble was a United States filmmaker making a film about a Third World Country. Despite the U.S. involvement, Yates was intrigued in telling a story of what she describes as a “hidden war” and led to the director making a film that was more “transcultural than ethnocentric and objectifying” (Longo, 77), meaning the director documented the genocide by the Guatemalan army through the eyes of the Maya people and not with a U.S. perspective. This was made possible by collaborating with human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu who served as a storyteller with an indigenous (meaning original and truthful) voice (Skylight Pictures, 15). Menchu’s importance in the film is evident in its opening sequence as she delivers the first dialogue. Wearing a distinct blue ensemble, Menchu stands out strong from the black background and introduces herself as part of the Maya people, giving authority to the film. This collaboration also has an important relationship to the visual imagery selected by the director and even more so to the re-enacted scenes, an aspect of the blurred lines of documentary and fiction.

Menchu introduces the re-enacted scenes based on declassified U.S. documents by stating, “However, some years ago there was hope for a democracy”. Both re-enacted scenes of the dinner with Guatemalan President and the CIA command post were juxtaposed with monologues by Menchu and at one point, her voice acts as voice-over to the reenacted sequence. This is one of the examples given by Teresa Longo that made the film transcultural as it joined images of Menchu and the fiction-based conventions of the director to explore the U.S. history in relation to the events in the Third World Country (Longo, 79). The collaboration with activists and post-modern filmmaking demonstrated in When the Mountain Trembles has been explored twenty-two years later in Maquilapolis. 

While taking a course on Latin American Cinema, professor Elizabeth Miller sparked an interesting discussion on Maquilapolis, which was that we (the class) has previously discussed the aesthetics of hunger in relation to the Cinema Novo Movement, but now with Maquilapolis, how would we describe its aesthetics of access? This was interesting as it reflects the collaboration between Vicki Funari, Sergio De La Torre and the maquiladora workers. The directors wanted to work with women who are activists and they taught the woman factory workers how to use a digital camera, film techniques, sound recording, and writing skills in order to tell their story (Fregoso, 3). This collaboration offered a personal insight to the women’s lifestyles while granting extraordinary access to the factories they have suffered in and the unprivileged homes they live in with their family. The access seen in the film at the factory justifies the gritty and toxic surroundings the woman are standing up against while the access in their homes and lifestyle justifies their strong-willed characteristics, making the audience realize that they deserve better. The collaboration offers subjective truth, an aspect of post-modern documentary, a mode that also includes fictional elements.

Along with this collaboration, the filmmakers combine the documentary realism with choreographed performances of the maquiladora workers that acts as the film’s fictional elements. The workers, dressed in blue, demonstrate a repeated movement of their hands that resemble the work they do in the factory.  The docu-auteurs add a personal touch to the film by juxtaposing beautiful imagery of the dance with the dark undertones of the factory. Now free from work at the factory, the film concludes with the workers slowly spreading apart from line and walking free as the camera moves further to a Bird’s-eye Point-of-View shot. Sounds like a scene in a Hollywood movie. Like Linda William’s explains, post-modern documentary take part in “a new hunger for reality on the part of the audience apparently saturated with Hollywood fiction” (Galindo, 83). As director Funari explains, it is the combination and the dynamics you get of the performance and the standard verite elements that makes the project interesting while expressing the films themes, characters, and place (Fregoso, 176) – a true representation of facts in a post-modern approach.

To synthesize both films as a part of post-modern cinema, both films show a constructed truth by the directors with the help of human rights activists. Peter Gabriel’s WITNESS promotional video concludes by demanding to give cameras to the world to start shooting and revealing the injustices of the world (Speakers, 1), which is what Maquilapolis and When the Mountains Tremble does effectively in collaboration with human rights activists. As Gabriel optimistically explains, this approach to a self-reflexive style of documentary is expanding especially with the technological developments of portable camera-phones where practically any human rights activist can be a docu-auteur and reveal the truth.


Galindo, Gloria. Bus 174 and Post-Modern Documentary. Theoria, Vol. 18 (1): 81-86, 2009.

Fregoso, Rosa-Linda. “Maquilapolis: An Interview with Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre”. Camera Obscura 74, Vol 25, Number 2, Duke University Press, 2010.

Longo, Teresa. “When the Mountains Tremble: Images of Ethnicity in a Transcultural Context” Framing Latin American Cinema, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 189-206.

Maquilapolis. Dir. Vicki Funari and Sergio De La Torre. California Newsreel. 2006. Film.

Skylight Pictures. Granito Press Release. Press Release. 2013.

“Speakers Peter Gabriel: Musician, Activist.” Peter Gabriel. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

When the Mountain Trembles. Dir. Pamela Yates. Skylight Pictures. 1983. Film.

Williams, Linda. “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary” New Challenges for the Documentary Ed: Alan Rosenthal and John Corner. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005.


Bus 174 and City of God


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My second of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films Bus 174 and City of God.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, a young man in his twenties, holds a hostage in his arms with a gun at her head inside Bus 174 of Jardim Botanico, Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil. The man yells at the camera, “This is not an action movie, this is a serious matter!”. One without a hint or clue of this scene description might possibly convey it as well-written dialogue in a self-reflexive fiction, meaning, “consciousness turning back on itself” or films which call attention to themselves as cinematic constructs (Siska, 285). Unfortunately this is not the case. Albeit its self-reflexivity, the 2002 film Bus 174 directed by Jose Padilha documents the event of young protagonist Sandro who holds a bus hostage for four hours. The camera he addresses is part of a flock of cameras covering the event live for television and there is no one to yell cut to his actions. The event and consequences are real, which overall depicts the violence of Brazil’s society.

The year 2002 was a witness to another great Brazilian film City of God directed by Fernando Meireilles, a film about the growth of a crime gang in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Now why would the fiction film City of God be mentioned in the same breathe as the documentary film Bus 174? Ask the critiques of Bus 174. To select a few, Jamie Russel of BBC states, “A stunning indictment of Brazil’s social meltdown, this startling documentary plays like City Of God – except this time the bullets are real” and Empire summarizes that, “If City Of God cracked the skin, Bus 174 digs deep into the wound”. These are brief comments about the films similarities but they are accepted in a movie review. As Timothy Corrigan explains, movie reviews are an introduction of the film to the general public, but he also explains the critical essay, a deeper evaluation that focuses on the film’s themes and any other filmic observations (Corrigan, 7-10). That is my job here. Collecting opinions of theoretical author’s and my own, I will analyze what makes City of God similar to Bus 174. In terms of form, while one is a documentary and another a fiction, they each contain a small but significant element of their opposite form to blur the lines of documentary and fiction. Thematically, both films depict the aspect of violence in Brazil’s society. Combining form and theme, Bus 174 and City of God realistically portrays the social issues in Brazil that ultimately categorizes both films under the Cinema Novo movement of Latin America, a movement that captured the underdevelopment of Latin America.

Else R. P. Vieira, Professor of Latin American Studies, states that City of God utilizes hegemonic models and mainstream film language (Vieira, 51). The open sequence of the fiction film is a representation of this. It begins with fast-paced, extreme close-ups of knives, the celebratory Brazilian community killing chickens followed with another stylized sequence of a chase with guns for a fleeing chicken. The sequence ends with our hero, Rocket, a young man with a camera, who stands close to the chicken while confronted by a gang on one end and the police on the other. While contemplating whether he should take a picture of the event, he narrates, “A picture could change my life, in the City of God, if you run away, they get you and if you stay, they get you too. It’s been that way ever since I was a kid”.

Comprising mostly of fictional elements, there is still subtle documentary traits that incorporates filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch’s ethnofiction genre, a subgenre of docufiction that means, “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background” (Ross, 1) by using actors and scripts. The film utilizes the docufiction technique by using real people from the favela as actors. Expanding on this, Vieira explains that two hundred children and adolescents were trained during preproduction allowed great spontaneity in the film, which would need a handheld camera to capture it. Real people and handheld cameras are usual motifs to the documentary genre to capture the truth and reality of a given topic or event – this being violence in Brazil that was also depicted in Bus 174. 

Author Gloria Galino categorizes Bus 174 under post-modern documentary because it borrows features from fiction film. This is evident in the opening frames of the film as it begins with a near four-minute long shot of Jardim Botanico as it gets close to the scene of Sandro’s crime accompanied with a string-orchestrated soundtrack. Gloria Galino is inspired with theorist Linda Williams’ who states, “post-modern documentaries take part in a new hunger for reality on the part of the audience apparently saturated with Hollywood fiction, but with a sense that truth is subject of manipulation and construction by docu-auteurs who, whether on camera or behind it, are forcefully calling the shots” (Galino 83). Director Jose Padilha has power to make the film how he wishes which develops into a documentary that displays the intensity of a fiction. This also relates to self-reflexivity, which as mentioned previously, addresses the construction of a film where the voice of the director is evident.

In my opinion, the most effective choice made by the director was to break time and space by juxtaposing footage of the live event with parts of the film that reflect on Sandro’s traumatic past of his mother being murdered by interviewing people who know him. Linda Williams calls this aspect of the film, “mirror with memory” (Galino, 84). Since they are exploring the past, this cannot be captured, therefore it needs to be constructed through memory and as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines it, memory is a “work of fiction”. It is subjectively constructed from an individual while viewing objective accounts (Ranciere, 158). Theorist Belinda Smaill expands on the director’s decision to not organize the film to offer a single, one-sided reading which makes the documentary provoke drama and suspense because of the analysis of the protagonist’s psyche (Smaill, 185). I mentioned Else R. P. Vieira’s statement earlier that City of God utilizes hegemonic models and mainstream film language. Bus 174 follows that statement and she continues that both qualities are necessary to achieve success internationally. Bus 174 is the first Latin American documentary that was show in cinemas and film festivals around the world. Along with City of God, it was an international success.

To synthesize both films as a part of Latin American Cinema, City of God and Bus 174 represent Cinema Novo, a movement that represents Latin’s “cultural manifestation” of violence (Vieira, 54). Inspired by Italian Neo-Realism, both of the documentary and fiction films utilize real people to demonstrate the truth of violence in Brazil whether it is on an animal, an inanimate object such a soccer ball or on each other. This movement, and the effectiveness on documentary and fiction film is proving to be inspiring young Brazilian filmmakers such as Maria Clara Escobar. Having the opportunity to view her film, Os Dias Com Ele (2013) at the Montreal Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, I can see the influence of Cinema Novo as she uses memory to blur the lines of fiction and documentary to reflect on Brazil dictatorship of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I predict the value of constructing documentaries and fiction with this approach will only grow.


Bus 174. Dir. Jose Padilha. Zazen Producoes. 2002. Film.

“Bus 174Documentary about the Kidnapping of a Bus Full of People in Brazil.” N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

City of God. Dir. Fernando Meirelles. Miramax Films. 2002. Film.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. Second Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, 6-15.

Os Dia Com Ele. Dir. Maria Clara Escobar. 2013. Film.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

Reuben, Ross. “Ethnofiction and the Work of Jean Rouch | UK Visual Anthropology.” UK Visual Anthropology. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Russell, Jamie. BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Siska, William C. “Metacinema: A Modern Necessity.” Literature/Film Quarterly, 7.1 (1979): 285-9.

Smaill, Belinda. The Documentary – Politics, Emotion, Culture, 2010, p 182-188

Vieira, Else R. P., Cidade de Deus: Challenges to Hollywood, Steps to The Constant Gardener In Contemporary Latin American Cinema (pp 51-66).

8 Mile: A Study of Hip-Hop Culture


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This is an essay that analyzes the film 8 Mile and how it depicts and challenges the culture of Hip-Hop.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

(sorry in advance for some inconsistency in the essay’s formatting in the lyric segements – WordPress is giving me some problems)

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Music is not isolated to a vinyl pressing, compact disc, or audio file. It is a versatile art form – a statement I realized while studying media, in and out of school.

Cinema is a passion of mine to study, produce and enjoy. Most of all, it is a medium that can utilize music while also define a music genre. Music is another passion of mine and I am fortunate that both mediums are unifying art-forms. For instance, some of my most favored films are illustrations of a musical time period and define its depicted music genre. They also confront and demonstrate issues around the given culture. To name a few, Almost Famous: Rock and Roll in the 1970’s, Walk the Line: Johnny Cash and Country music, A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles and the British Invasion and finally, the focus of my essay –

8 Mile: A Study of Hip-Hop Culture 

Of the numerous films made about the four-decade long Hip-Hop culture, Curtis Hanson’s 2002 film 8 Mile featuring Eminem and his semi-autobiographical story is among the most successful. It frequently makes the list of “best hip-hop movies” (Ramirez, 1) and is an example of commercial success meeting artistic achievement. While the film grossed 240 million at the box office (Box Office Mojo), it was acclaimed by film critics and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, part of the 8 Mile’s thematic score, was rewarded an Academy Award for Best Original Song (the first Hip-Hop artist to do so). However, a “two-thumbs up” from famed critic Roger Ebert and a golden statue is not my criteria for artist achievement.

My film analysis will accompany the cultural theories of Hip-Hop by theorist Murray Forman in “The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop” and Jeffery O.G Ogbar in “Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap”. Major elements of this analysis will include the role of the MC and Race, Space and Place in Hip-Hop culture which Forman discusses and is demonstrated by director Curtis Hanson in 8 Mile. The film is set during the backdrop of underground rap battles in Detroit where MC’s use words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95). The writing, locations and performances of the battles relate to the artist’s life and surroundings, or as Forman suggests, “space and place”.

Race is also part of the narrative. In the film, main character B-Rabbit (Eminem) struggles to make an impact as a Hip-Hop artist in the Black community of Detroit. This racial element is explored throughout the film, and especially summed in a discussion between B-Rabbit and his entourage of close friends: DJ IZ tells B-Rabbit, “There’s always room for a White man in a Black man’s world”.

My analysis of 8 Mile will be an example of why the film is an artistic achievement as it relates to the large culture of Hip-Hop as theorized by author Murray Forman and Jeffery O.G Ogbar. There are different approaches to writing about a film and I will use a critical essay methodology (Corrigan, 12). With this method in practice, I presume that the reader will be familiar with 8 Mile as I analyze its components, such as setting, character and language, in relation to Hip-Hop culture.

8 Mile is a semi-autobiographical account of Eminem, therefore a 1995 Detroit setting is appropriate. Eminem grew as a person and rapper in this time and place which is a reflection of B-Rabbit, the main character of the film. Setting is an important element in film language to help convey the theme, build an atmosphere and make the film believable. Detroit was a motivated setting to associate music and race as depicted in 8 Mile. 

As represented in the film, the Hip-Hop culture in Detroit is one that depicts a division of race and social class. However, Detroit is not only an important city for Hip-Hop as author Chris Quispel titles the city with Detroit: City of Cars, City of Music. This is a title the author relates to the rise of Motown Records in the 1960’s and 1970, a time period that also reflects social and racial division with music as it did with Hip-Hop. Motown was one of the most important Black record labels in the United States and “Although almost everybody involved with the Motown label was Black, the music was successfully aimed at both a Black and White audience – this despite the volatile and hostile racial relations in Detroit” (Quispel, 226).

The hostile racial relations that Quispel examines is an issue that reached its climax in the summer of 1943 when the race riot occurred. Fights between young Blacks and Whites erupted and fought for several days. “34 people were killed, 25 of them Black, 675 were seriously injured and 1,893 people were arrested” (Quispel, 229) and this riot was a result of the growing competition between Blacks and Whites, a relationship that audiences witness in 8 Mile. 

The depiction of Detroit’s racial and social relations in the film is already referenced in the title 8 Mile. The film’s title refers to 8 Mile Road in Detroit, a border in between 7 Mile Road, the Black neighborhood, and 9 Mile Road, the White neighborhood. Its division is physical and metaphorical as it separates two different cultures and communities (Esling, ch.8, location 1553). In the film, we see the difference between the White and Black neighborhood. When B-Rabbit and his entourage visit their friend Cheddar-Bob after his accident, they are in a White neighborhood. Director Curtis Hanson paces the scene in comparison to the neighborhood itself – slow, mundane and it lasts a striking two minutes compared to the rest of the film where it mostly takes place in a fast and eventful Black neighborhood with Hip-Hop clubs such as The Shelter, the streets and Detroit Stamping. The 8 Mile Road division in this instance can also be an indication between reality and aspiration. B-Rabbit, if unsuccessful in his career, may lead a mundane life but he aspires to become part of the Hip-Hop scene in 7 Mile Road and beyond.


While B-Rabbit spends most of his days in the Black neighborhood, he finds inspiration in the streets, at his job in Detroit Stamping and The Shelter. He rides the “8 Mile” bus to work and gazes out the window as the gritty streets of Detroit pass by. The character looks over at a liquor store, a gun range and a golf club – they are run-down with low maintenance which displays the area’s poverty. B-Rabbit then writes lyrics on a sheet of paper (that is old and mostly filled, showing that he is inspired and writes frequently) over the beats on his walkman. As Nas used the scenes in Queensbridge to inspire the artist’s masterful Illmatic (XXL Staff), B-Rabbit uses the Detroit scene to inspire his writing. The lyrics written in this scene eventually become a song titled “8 Mile” by Eminem on the film’s soundtrack, named after B-Rabbit’s bus. Segments of these lyrics display the character’s frustration of living in Detroit:

I just can’t do it, my whole manhood’s

just been stripped, I have just been vicked

So I must then get off the bus then split

Man fuck this shit yo, I’m going the fuck home

World on my shoulders as I run back to this 8 Mile Road

Detroit crime is also an aspect of the film. At one point, it introduces a murder and rape crime towards a young girl. Eventually, B-Rabbit and his entourage burn down the house where it took place which serves as another inspiring event to the rapper’s lyrics. As he works at the Detroit Stamping factory (another setting of inspiration), he sings:

Alex Latourno, Hotter than an inferno

Hotter than a crack house

Burn internal

He combines events of the night before: the start of his love interest with Alex Latourno and the burning of a crime scene.


B-Rabbit writes from personal experience which is the reality of Hip-Hop artists like, as mentioned earlier, Nas and his album Illmatic. This idea relates to an important theoretical outlook on Hip-Hop from Murray Forman’s book on the importance of space and race in the Hip-Hop narrative. Spaces, such as the city or the ghetto, can influence the music and the stories being told through the lyrics (Forman, 88) as the streets of Detroit inspire B-Rabbit’s narrative lyrics. With the help of Communications theorist Michel de Certeau, Murray Forman expresses the use of narrative in Hip-Hop as it is an important cultural element that offers insight on space. In Hip-Hop, the MC uses words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95).

Director Curtis Hanson depicts settings in 8 Mile with such grit and realism that B-Rabbit’s inspiration with Detroit is motivated and justified. Cinematically, this is accomplished by shooting on location while capturing the film with handheld and dark-toned cinematography. It offers a distinct parallel with the characters that inhabit the locations. Not only do the settings reflect the characters, but it reflects Hip-Hop culture as well with its use of The Shelter, a Detroit Hip-Hop club. Again, the director uses a real location to heighten the film’s authenticity. The Shelter, as described by author Jordan Ferguson, was a venue for people to showcase their talent (Ferguson 18). The main attractions were the “open mic battles that took place on Saturdays between  5:00 and 7:00 p.m. The Saturday battles and the shop as a whole became a mandatory destination for Hip-Hop heads, a space wholly dedicated to the love and appreciation of the music and the culture, and a place for the city’s growing crew of artists to network and collaborate” (Ferguson 10). In relation to 8 Mile, the venue represents the struggles of a White man trying to become successful in a Black setting. The film’s sequences at The Shelter are examples of Curtis Hanson’s use of character and language in relation to Hip-Hop culture. I will examine B-Rabbit’s struggle in a racial setting from rap battle lyrics heard at the venue.

The Shelter is part of the first scene in the film as B-Rabbit prepares in the venue’s bathroom for a rap battle. The scene cuts to a battle on stage, showing a Black rapper vs another in front of a predominantly Black audience. Future, B-Rabbit’s friend and host of the rap battles, escorts B-Rabbit to the stage. He and his African-American opponent Lil’ Tic are ready to battle. Lil’ Tic starts first and what follows are important excerpts from his battle:

I’mma murder this man!
He’s the type to lose a fight with a dyke
They don’t laugh cause you’re whack, they laugh cause you’re white with a mic
You a wigger that invented rhymes for money
My paws love to maul an MC
Cause he’s faker than a psychic with caller ID
So that bullshit, save it for storage
Cause this is hip hop, you don’t belong you’re a tourist
So put ya hockey stick and baseball bat away
Cause this here Detroit, 16 Mile road thataway, thataway

Examining these lyrics, Lil’ Tic incorporates racial comments as he takes advantage of B-Rabbit’s isolation in their Black community. This is evident in the battle’s opening line, “They don’t laugh cause you’re whack, they laugh cause you’re white with a mic”. Shortly after, Lil’ Tic uses the term “wigger”. This is a slang term that is defined as a White person that tries to act Black. He accuses B-Rabbit of being a rapper with no passion that writes meaningless rhymes just to make money, which Lil’ Tic follows up and calls it “bullshit” material (Black Papillon, 1).

Hip-Hop is known as being an African-American genre. Hip-Hop theorist Jeffery O.G Ogbar supports this claim by acknowledging that Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s. For example, Ogbar explains that the core of Hip-Hop was influenced by African-American pop culture such as James Brown and his dance moves influencing breaking dancing (Ogbar 12). Therefore, as Imani Perry is quoted by Ogbar, “Hip-Hop music is black American music” (Ogbar 12). This is why Lil’ Tic refers to B-Rabbit as a tourist – “Cause this is hip hop, you don’t belong you’re a tourist”. It is similar to saying, “This is 9 Mile Road [the Black community] and you don’t belong [because you’re not like us]”. He concludes his racial attacks by referencing sports ideally played by Whites and tells B-Rabbit to leave town.


B-Rabbit is stunned and faces a heckling crowd. They laugh in face and yell, “Choke!”. B-Rabbit does not say a word and hands the mic to Future. This withdrawal and defeat reflects the real life struggle Eminem went through while growing up in Detroit. As author Isabelle Esling writes, “During the time Marshall Mathers [Eminem] settled in Detroit, racial tensions divided both Black and White communities. A White kid wanted to rap faced a real challenge. Eminem’s road to success was far from easy. It required a lot of determination and drive” (Esling, ch.8, location 41).

By the end of the film, B-Rabbit returns to The Shelter for a second chance to battle the film’s antagonist Papa Doc and his crew, Leaders of the Free World. Again, B-Rabbit is caught receiving racial insults:

Fuckin Nazi, this crowd ain’t your type

Take some real advice and form a group with Vanilla Ice

And what I tell you, you better use it

This guy’s a hillbilly, this ain’t Willie Nelson music

Ill crack your shoulder blade

You’ll get dropped so hard

Elvis will start turnin in his grave

I feel bad I gotta murder that dude from “Leave It To Beaver”

The lyrics use similar themes of race as the beginning of the film. The rappers scrutinize B-Rabbit for not being part of their crowd and compare him to White artists (Vanilla Ice, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley). However, B-Rabbit retaliates with rhymes and lyrics that wins the crowd’s attention and offers an insight on MC’s and freestyle in Hip-Hop. Freestyle competitions, by this time, have become a complex art form with more sophisticated rhythms. While an insult needs to be clever and insulting, freestyling rhymes must be “dope” in order to be accepted by a Hip-Hop audience (Pihel 253). B-Rabbit’s winning freestyle battle was against Papa Doc and not only did he insult him, but B-Rabbit rapped about his own life. Again, as Murray Forman explains, space is a big factor in Hip-Hop. Space inspires an MC to tell stories that are true and authentic, resulting in a strong connection with an MC’s audience (Forman 95). B-Rabbit also puts Murray Forman’s perspective into his insults towards Papa Doc:

I know something about you

You went to Cranbrook, that’s a private school

What’s the matter dawg? You embarrassed?

This guy’s a gangster? he’s real name’s Clarence

And Clarence lives at home with both parents

And Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage

This guy don’t wanna battle, He’s shook

‘Cause there no such things as half-way crooks

He’s scared to death

He’s scared to look in his fucking yearbook, fuck Cranbrook


An MC moves an audience with words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95) and their artistic success credibility resides in their class and/or race relation (Hodgman 402). B-Rabbit is an example of class-based authenticity. He lives in a trailer with his single mother with financial issues and struggles to achieve his dreams while working at a factory. He removes Papa Doc of all credibility. He takes pride in exposing Papa Doc’s background who was supposedly a more authentic rapper than B-Rabbit solely because of his Black background. Papa Doc is speechless and B-Rabbit proves his authenticity – something he was criticized for solely based on his racial status.

B-Rabbit is now an accepted Hip-Hop figure in Detroit and will presumably become a popular one since the character is a reflection of Eminem. Because of this acceptance and popularity in Hip-Hop, author Scott F. Parker examines Eminem (and B-Rabbit) in comparison to Elvis Presley. Parker states that Eminem is the “Elvis of Rap” because he is a White man who “makes Black music credibly, creatively and compellingly” (Parker, ch.1, location 531). Eminem produces music that theorist Jefferey O.G Ogbar associates with African-Americans (Ogbar 12) and Elvis Presley became popular with R&B, another predominately Black world.

As Elvis did with R&B, B-Rabbit in 8 Mile challenges the racial ideologies of Hip-Hop which was made possible by the character’s authenticity and talent as an MC. With Murray Forman’s and Jeffery O.G Ogbar’s theories of Hip-Hop, I analyzed how the appropriate Detroit setting reflects B-Rabbit’s racial discrimination in a Hip-Hop culture that is predominantly African-American. B-Rabbit uses his environment to write and tell compelling stories through rhyme that moves an audience and proves his role as an MC. He won the Black audience over, similar to how Eminem (a reflection of the 8 Mile character) gained respect from his audience. Talib Kweli, for instance, is an American Hip-Hop artist from New York City. Kweli’s origins and race are authentic in reference to Jefferey O.G Ogbar’s Hip-Hop discussion: Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s with the children of New York City being the creators of the art (Ogbar, 12). Talib Kweli first witnessed Eminem battle in New York City and reminisces:

“I saw Eminem get dissed badly over and over again, mostly for being White, and then come back and obliterate his competition with the next rhyme. He did it every time. There were a few on his level, but nobody better” (Parker, forward, location 47).

This relates to B-Rabbit’s achievement in 8 Mile, a film that defines the Hip-Hop culture while challenging its ideologies. Going back to the discussion between B-Rabbit and his entourage of close friends, DJ IZ tells B-Rabbit, “There’s always room for a White man in a Black man’s world”. By the end of 8 Mile, DJ IZ’s opinion is realized.


Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. New York: Longman, 1998. Print.

Esling, Isabelle. Eminem and the Detroit Rap Scene: White Kid in a Black Music World. Phoenix, AZ: Colossus, 2012. Kindle ebook file.

Ferguson, Jordan. Donuts. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Print.

Forman, Murray. The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop. (Middle, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2002). pp. 88-95.

Hodgman, Matthew R. “Class, Race, Credibility, and Authenticity within the Hip-Hop Music Genre”. Journal of Sociological Research. Vol. 4, No.2. pp. 402.

Ogbar, Jeffery O.G., Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2007). p.p. 12

Parker, Scott F. Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race: Essays. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014. Kindle ebook file.

Pihel, Erik. “A Furified Freestyle: Homer and Hip Hop”. Oral Tradition, 11/2 (1996): 249-269.

Quispel, Chris. “Detroit, City of Cars, City of Music”. Built Environment (1978-), Vol. 31, No. 3, Music and the City (2005), pp. 226-236.

Digital Bibliography

8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Universal Pictures. 2002.

“8 Mile (2002) – Box Office Mojo.” 8 Mile (2002) – Box Office Mojo. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

A Hard Day’s Night. Dir. Richard Lester. United Artists. 1964.

Almost Famous. Dir. Cameron Crowe. Dreamworks Pictures. 2000.

Black Papillon. “Lil’ Tic Disses Rabbit”. Genius. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Ramirez, Erika (November 8, 2012). “Top 10 Best Hip-Hop Movies Ever”. Billboard. Prometheus Global Media. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Walk the Line. Dir. James Mangold. 20th Century Fox. 2005.

XXL Staff. “Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic”. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.


8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Universal Pictures. 2002.

Nas’ “Illmatic”


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This is an essay examining the work of Hip-Hop artist Nas and his album Illmatic. While this seems unrelated to cinema, Hip-Hop is a culture that has been disseminated through film (such as 8 Mile, a film I also wrote an essay on which is posted right above this one!) 

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

– – –

At first glance, Illmatic by Nas features cover artwork of an African-American child juxtaposed with a photograph of a street-block. The child is Nas himself, or more appropriately, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, at age seven (Cowie, 2) and behind the young boy is a gritty New York City block (Juon, 1). The significance of the photograph, especially at this early age, is explained by Nas in an interview with MTV:

[The picture on my album cover] is me when I was 7 years old. That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That’s the year everything set off. That’s the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn’t leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there’s more out there.

Furthermore, as author Michael Eric Dyson explains in “Rebel In America” Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, the Queensbridge imagery transforms Illmatic into “a sonic map”. This is significant because it is the location of Nas’s inspiration for the album’s concept: stories based on his experiences of growing up in the Queensbridge projects. While the entire album is significant to the artist’s intent, three songs will be the focus of my Illmatic analysis: “N.Y. State of Mind”, “Halftime” and “One Love”. The lyrics will be the primary concern as the old-school-inspired beats serve as a proper accompaniment to Nas’s masterful storytelling and delivery.

The following analysis will structured by highlighting lyrics that are significant to the overall meaning of the song and album with theoretical studies in Hip-Hop culture by authors Murray Forman, Jeffery O.G. Ogbar and M.K. Asante Jr.

N.Y. State of Mind

“I don’t know how to start this shit, yo” are Nas’s last words before the verse and while it may seem simple and improvised, it proves to be important for the tone for the entire album. The line prepares the listener for an authentic listening experience and Nas is still using the lyric in his live performances for the same reason. The following two versus describe the dangerous environment that surrounded him in the city and his rapping capabilities with lines such as, “Rappers I monkey flip em with the funky rhythm I be kickin / Musician, inflictin composition / of pain I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine” and “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death / Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined / I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”. Nas reveals the dark side of New York City which is a different outlook on the city compared to “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra or the recent “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z that highlight the mainstream and glamourous ideals of the Big Apple. Nas explains that he is only reminded of the crime when thinking about the city, and in hindsight, he states, “New York City wrote Illmatic” (XXL Staff). This relates to author Murray Foreman’s book on the importance of space and race in the Hip-Hop narrative. Spaces, such as the city or the ghetto, can influence the music and the stories being told through the lyrics (Foreman, 8). Author Jeffery O.G Ogbar also acknowledges that Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s with the children of New York City being the creators of the art (Ogbar, 12) – a culture and place that Nas is associated with.


Halftime” features a critique on society where, “Nas performs the most critical function of the public intellectual: linking a rigorous engagement with the life of the mind to an equally rigorous engagement with the public and its problems” (Hill, 1). A major problem that Nas expresses in “Halftime” is the discrimination that he witnessed from the police, or the “5-0” as he refers to them. Nas describes them as “heartless” because when “narcs” raid a house, it is usually late at night or early in the morning to catch people by surprise – a heartless tactic (Devito, 1). The artist addresses discrimination towards African-Americans by writing about how his race are criminals to the eyes of the police. This is evident in the line “I wear chains that excite the Feds” meaning that when Federal Agents see his overly-expensive chains he wears, they think that they were obtained illegally. Besides personal experience, Nas also incorporates political discussion by alluding to events ranging from the days of slavery (“I rap in front of more niggas than in the slave ships”) to the recent 1992 riot in Washington Heights, NY (Finder, 1) where Jose Garcia was shot by the police (“And yo, go to hell to the foul cop who shot Garcia”). Nas directs our attention to this prejudice – but where does it come from? Author M. K. Asaute Jr. suggests that the representation of Blacks in the media has an impact on the matter such as media that are “produced by whites and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism” (Asaute Jr, 21). Ideally, the police are suppose to protect, though they combine their high authority and prejudice to act violently and unfairly towards others. Along with his personal experiences, Nas’s references to important examples in the history of racial discrimination, including Malcolm X, display the artist’s high intelligence, which is displayed with a creative flare in “One Love”.

One Love 

The narratives and social issues inspired by Nas’s upbringing in New York is well executed due to Nas’s skillful storytelling ability. “One Love” is an example of the artist’s talent. Knowing Nas’s background, this is not a surprise. He started writing rhymes at nine-years-old and has been dedicated to writing music for his brothers who cannot voice their feelings (MTV, 1). Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson can also testify to Nas’ intelligence. In an interview with XXL magazine, Jackson states, “Nas is a really smart guy. He reads books constantly. We were around him on the Nastradamus tour. He was almost weirder than me ’cause we would go to breakfast and he’d be there reading a book” (Robbins, 1). As many say, creativity can spawn from reading and what makes “One Love” interesting is the artist’s literary imagination by writing the song in the form of a letter. At the time, Nas had a friend in jail which inspired this writing decision. As author Adam Bradley states in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop:

Nas is perhaps contemporary rap’s greatest innovator in storytelling. His catalog includes songs narrated before birth (‘Fetus’) and after death (‘Amongst Kings’), biographies (‘UBR [Unauthorized Biography of Rakim]’) and autobiographies (‘Doo Rags’), allegorical tales (‘Money Is My Bitch’) and epistolary ones (‘One Love’), he’s rapped in the voice of a woman (‘Sekou Story’) and even of a gun (‘I Gave You Power’) (Bradley, 173).

With the help of Communications theorist Michel de Certeau, Murray Forman expresses the use of narrative in Hip-Hop as it is an important cultural element that offers insight on space. In Hip-Hop, the MC uses words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95) as Nas does in “One Love” and the rest of Illmatic. The range of styles and form as seen in “One Love” demonstrates great narrative qualities from the artist and allows the audience to comprehend the space of Nas’s past more fully.

From the first glance at Illmatic’s album artwork to the last word sung in “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, Nas offers a glimpse into his experiences growing up in Queensbridge that raises social issues about city crime and racial discrimination from higher authority. Furthermore, the artist’s lyrics offer an appropriate and masterful narrative to help visualize the space that surrounds him. With cultural studies authors Murray Foreman, Jeffery O.G Ogbar and M.K. Asante Jr., Illmatic is an album that is capable of making the listeners aware of social and cultural codes that exists within Nas and his work, which a good reason to include Illmatic as one the great masterpieces in Hip-Hop.


Asante Jr., M. K. It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop. The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. (New, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “Keeping it Real Vs. Reel” and “What’s Really Hood? A Conversation With an African American Ghetto”. p 13-52.

Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. New York, NY: Basic Civitas, 2009. Print.

Cowie, Del F. “Nas – Battle Ready”. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Devito, E.A. “Halftime”. Genius. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Dyson, Michael Eric. “Rebel In America”. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic. pp. 33–60. Print.

Finder, Alan. “THE WASHINGTON HEIGHTS CASE; In Washington Heights, Dinkins Defends Actions After Shooting”. New York Times. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Forman, Murray. The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop. (Middle, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2002). Pg 95.

Hill, Marc Lamont. “Critical Pedagogy Comes At Halftime: Nas As Black Public Intellectual [Excerpt].” Genius. Web. 12 Oct. 2014

Juon, Steve. “Nas Illmatic. RapReviews “Back to the Lab” series. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

MTV. “ Nas: The Genesis.” Nas: The Genesis. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Ogbar, Jeffery O.G., Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2007). Pg 12.

Robbins, Daniella V. “50 Cent: Smart Nas”. Blues and Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

XXL Staff. “Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic”. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.