Premiering at Slamdance 2013 in Utah this past Thursday, Neil Drumming’s feature film debut Big Words has been one of our most anticipated films of the fest’s lineup, and that anticipation is well deserved.
Drumming, a black man by the way, is a former staff writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly whose sole film credit prior to Words is the short film Hi Res, which stars Jevon McFerrin and Nadia Kiyatkina.
The narrative takes place in the backdrop of the 2008 election. Although it’s barely a backdrop, it further added significance to the film’s underlying theme of change in these characters’ lives. While watching the film I kept wishing it had premiered at Sundance instead. It’s one of those films that deserve more opportunities and a bigger platform.
Malik, played by Darien Sills Evans (20 Rock, Treme), was the DJ of an up-coming rap group trio in the early 1990’s, who along with John “Big Words” (Dorian Missick) and James (Gbenga Akinnagbe), hoped to “make it“ as the likes of “De La Soul” and “A Tribe Called Quest” at the height of Alternative Hip-Hop’s boom.
But it has been 11 years after the group’s break-up, now Malik lives with his girlfriend and makes a living taking up different DJ gigs. There’s new R&B song that keeps hitting the airwaves, and to his mortification, the new “hit” samples a beat Malik produced 15 years ago. He is the only one out of the trio still hoping to reunite with the group and get due recognition.
John – a "glass-half-empty-state-of-mind" kind of guy - has been getting by as a computer tech that has seemingly lost all his drive; his disappointments have gotten the best of him. He strikes an unlikely friendship with a stripper named Annie (a fantastic Yaya Alafia better known as “DaCosta”) whom he sees out in the city trying to buy a microphone. Their subplot is one of the most enjoyable highlights of the film. It’s not common to see a nuanced, realistic portrayal of a stripper or “dancer” on screen without gratuitous shots of pole dancing or “booty shaking”. Their chemistry is organic, so is their blossoming, genuine connection, stemming from her passion for singing; his very own passion for rap is being deeply buried. I appreciated their fully layered and dynamic – their complex need to bond, differences, attraction, romantic hesitation, insecurities and fears.
James, the only white-collar worker out of the trio, is now a book publicist who has been living openly as a homosexual since departing the group. The past comes back to hunt him when one of his colleagues seeks his advice on a book he’s thinking of writing about said colleague’s father, who just happens to be the rap group’s manager. Conflict arises when James and his boyfriend are hosting an election party, which Malik and John - separately - get word of and show up.
Their distinct personalities are finely developed. Akinnagbe is aplomb in the challenging role of a well-to-do gay ex-rapper now out of the closet; Missick is superb and so is Evans, whose TV work I have not seen. The scenes in which Evans is inebriated are so convincing that I could’ve sworn he actually was during the making of the film.
Drumming’s Brooklyn-set debut is impressively acted and touching. I’d be remiss if I don’t mention the freshness of the poetic lyricism in the film, as well as the beats by DJ Malik.
This rap group felt real; the rifts and consequent estrangement among group members felt authentic; the amusing conversations had among peers in their age group - how hip hop music used to be, its lyrical content, and cultural progressiveness versus that of the new generation - felt familiar and immediately recognizable although in a very good way. In most scenes, I felt as if I was in the room with these characters, laughing along and wanting to partake in their discussions.
Neil Drumming’s Big Words is an engaging, entertaining and clever film about passion and nostalgia; overcoming regrets and failure, team camaraderie and self-actualization just when you thought your dreams and hopes were lost. And Drumming is able to craft a film buoyed by compelling and convincing performances sans the didactical clichés that films of this genre tend to offer.