A scene from Mtume Gant’s debut film “SPIT.”
Mtume Gant’s short film Spit is an impactful 16-minute Hip Hop sonata on one hand and a slightly precious, if not heartfelt, cinematic reflection on maturity, art, responsibility, and the decisions we all have to make as artists.
For some of us, the only option is death. Literally, figuratively – you can interpret it any which way you want but the film’s thrust is about the crisis an artist goes through when unable to traverse or curtail the capitalist values and business mania of the zeitgeist that sees his work, culture, and spirit as nothing but fodder. The story of the artist being chewed up and spit out is not new – in fact, if there are any myths that still ring out in our world – this is one of them. What is admirable however, is how Gant presents this struggle and how personal of a journey it becomes.
Gant’s strong directorial debut Spit follows Jeremiah “Monk-One” Sinclair (Gant himself) an underground NY Hip Hop artist, as he reaches conclusion to let his passion go because the pain of suffering as an artist is ultimately worse to him that the quotidian nightmares of civilian life or the cosmic rat race that nips at the artist’s heels.
Employing a first person POV (Gant has announced his admiration for Tarkovsky’s The Mirror) that gets shattered in moments of naked honesty such as the most moving moment in the film where, before a literal mirror, Monk-One tries to explain to his girlfriend Cassidy (Suzette Azariah Gunn) that he can no longer rely on her to support him and in just two minutes, a dialogue about love, trust, responsibility, and the existential crisis of black men come into full effect. Scenes of this nature are rarely seen – anywhere. And as one who has a particular interest in the revealing of our wounds and pathologies, I applaud the honesty between Gant and Gunn – in what is essentially a duo in the mirror; a dialogue of double-consciousness…and a soliloquy to the audience.
Spit is a ‘power ballad’ and it draws on multiple conventions more associated with musical techniques than recognizable cinematic expression. But only because it is a “Hip Hop film” in terms of aesthetics – spiritually. I want to state here that I firmly believe it is an “expressionistic hip-hop power ballad” – because it all takes place inside Monk-One’s head. (The idea of sampling is also very prevalent. Monk-One “samples” his memory for context and pieces it all together for understanding.)
The rhythms, the vibration, the spare self-referencing, and the political consciousness all acknowledge the tight prism of true ‘conscious’ hip-hop as folk art and self-expression. It is not an ersatz hip-hop film like 2013’s commercial atrocity The Great Gatsby (yes, the director Baz Luhrmann tried to bamboozle people into believing that it contained a hip-hop aesthetic film because he got Jay-Z to do the soundtrack!) nor is it a film that exploits the cross-cutting beats and rhythms of classic hip-hop in the way that, say, Darren Aronofsky used hip-hop as a frame of reference for his wonderful debut film Pi (1998).
Those films are referenced to give one an idea of what Spit is not. First off, those very different movies were done and conceived by white directors. This is important to state because often when black artists are dealing with their own “folk arts” there is a tendency to coddle and patronize its audience as if they are tourists. An example of this is just about any “culture” event taking place at any embassy on American soil or having anything to do with presenting something for a Western Audience. Thankfully, Spit does not purport to make one understand anything about hip-hop nor does it try to appeal to the white gaze (a lesser and insecure African-American director would do that, in hopes of not “alienating” white mainstream viewers or the blacks who have been led to believe that Kanye West’s persona and music are representative of “true hip-hop.”) It is a drama that turns a stringent coming of age ritual into a severe rumination on art, vocation, and identity in the 21stcentury. (As an aside, if there is a film that I had to refer Spit to it could be Larry Clark’s [the African-American director, not the exploitive-schlock-White American photographer who made Kids] 1977 Passing Through. A movie about a jazz musician struggling with his demons. Both Spit and Passing Through share a thematic and emotional core, however different.)
Through a taut assembly of scenes reiterating the overriding theme of honoring one’s gifts (in the case of Monk-One’s artistic talents), personal family crisis (Che Ayende and a solicitous Erica Chamblee self-consciously staged to great effect emulating Monk One’s POV – as they relay the fears and hopes of his parents), monologues exploring the relationship of purity and art (or analog Vs digital in the case of Lameen Witter’s droll cameo as Fingers) and an explosive diatribe against the corporatization and perversion of hip-hop music – wonderfully performed with a very palpable frustration by Lance Coadie Williams, who plays Fryor, Monk-One’s manager; a figure caught in a “No Exit” situation; Williams’ burning eyes captured in a funky hem-hawing long take imbues the scene with tremendous soul that makes up for weaker moments in the film, rendering them benign) the script is intelligent and personal and does not weigh itself down or cut its own knees off by wallowing in clichés or sentimental tripe or counter-revolutionary vulgar language and self-hating dialogue that I’m sure mainstream festivals and the State Department itself would have preferred. The lyrical screenplay reveals itself plainly in its coming-of-age moments when it digs deep into lingering questions such as: What do fathers pass on to their sons? What is fear? What does it mean for Black Men, in particular, to be responsible?
The uncomfortability of Spit resides in that last particular question – not because it criticizes or tries to flagellate in front of an audience, but because Monk-One is a highly conscious individual. He knows exactly what his problems are, have been, will be – and the intellectual knowingness of his character puts a damper on any kind of Hallmark resolution or “Sundance” ghetto chic story. In a Black context, Spit is a step forward because its characters are just that – characters. Shades of colors. And by allowing scraps and fragments to reveal behavior, they become real. And that is always the challenge for the dramatist. Real people are not the issue. It’s expressing truth – that’s where we often falter. In both a Black context and a national one, truth is still the number one problem with independent cinema – which prefers to relay Hollywood lies and Liberal-media-sanctioned sentiments over the raw and strange truth of individual lives.
In the context of cinema at large, Spit (which I declare to be a Hip Hop sonata – because a sonata must be played as opposed to the Latin cantata – which is sung; so in this way – a musical piece can be broken down and expressed on a screen. In essence, the song is broken down and “played” out cinematically as opposed to being a song) takes a small, but powerful step forward in the realm of non-linear cinema, because it does have something to say. Its formal qualities do not overwhelm its human desire to want to genuinely say and express something. Either “experimental” dramas allude to twenty other movies or they commit themselves to being abstract in a jokesy-vaudeville way. Americans have a problem taking themselves seriously. (An aside: All those who prefer their stories of struggle or “hip hop” celebrations in the Hollywood sense will reject Spit on the basis that it is too naked or too dark – one of the greatest ironies coming from the “Hip Hop community” which traditionally championed the raw truth, but which has done virtually nothing to support this film…they’re too busy heralding Straight Outta Compton I suppose.)
Spit is a tragedy. One cannot be shocked by its ending. The film progresses towards an ending that an audience mature enough and deep enough will understand. Bleak endings are necessary. Sometimes we have to step back. Or even, simply, waive the white flag and give up. Artists suffer for their art, for the people they speak for, and for their own un-reconciled demons and desires often torn and ripped out of so many years of dreaming and conceiving, doing and daring…sometimes we run out of steam. As the director himself stated to me, “People are always miffed how artists can find such joy in art but struggle so much with existence. But if we choose a different pathway where does that lead us?”
And that is what Mtume Gant’s movie spits.
Update: As of August 28, 2015 Spit has screened in several national film festivals, notably Aspen Shortsfest and Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival. It will be screening soon in the Harlem International Film Festival. It was a recipient of a San Francisco Film Award.
Dennis Leroy Kangalee (“As an Act of Protest,” Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World,”) is a poet & filmmaker living in NYC. He is the co-founder of New Poet Cinema. Mtume Gant starred in Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s production of Amiri Baraka’s “The Toilet” at the Here Theater in 1998. It was their first collaboration in the theater.