Hip Hop in American Cinema

by Melvin Donalson (Author)
©2007 Textbook XII, 191 Pages


Hip Hop in American Cinema examines the manner in which American feature films have served as the primary medium for mainstreaming hip hop culture into American society. With their glamorizing portrayals of graffiti writing, break dancing, rap music, clothing, and language, Hollywood movies have established hip hop as a desirable youth movement. This book demonstrates how Hollywood studios and producers have exploited the profitable connection among rappers, soundtracks, and mass audiences. Hip Hop in American Cinema offers valuable information for courses in film studies, popular culture, and American studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This ebook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 Representin’ in the Beginnin’: The 1980s
  • 2 Chillin’ and Killin’: Hood Rats and Thugs, 1990–1999
  • 3 Skimmin’ the Phat: Players, Poets, and Professionals, 1996–2005
  • 4 Tupac Shakur: Hip-Hop Icon and Screen Idol
  • 5 Queen Latifah: From MC to Mainstream Diva
  • 6 Beyond the Reel: Rappers, Bling, and Floss
  • Filmography
  • Performers’ Filmography
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


At 50 plus years, I am an unlikely interpreter of the hip-hop youth movement. However, my personal and professional experiences have brought me in close contact with those who have lived with hip hop as an integral part of their lives.

I first became interested in hip hop through my brother, Brian. Fifteen years my junior, Brian was a member of a break dancing crew, called The Young Generation, in the early 1980s. They performed in and around Boston and our hometown area of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, including a gig as an opening act for the emerging pop group, The New Edition. By the late 1980s, Brian joined me in southern California, pursuing a solo career as a rapper, calling himself Sweets-the-MC. Eventually, I became one of his managers which was unfortunate for him. My minimal skills as a manager were never close to his talents and creativity as an MC. In 1988, with his single “What’s Up?” we did a mini-tour playing clubs in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Boston, Cape Cod, and Chicago. Since the mid-1990s, Brian has been working the other side of the microphone as a music producer, though he still has a captivating flow as a rapper.

From those years with Brian, and other hip-hop performers, I was witness to the liberating effects of hip hop—from anger and frustrations—and the inspiring aspects of hip hop—for dreams and imagination. On stage and in the studio, as Brian rapped into the mic, it was a mesmerizing experience of rhymes, rhythms, and spontaneous inventiveness.

By the year 2000, my son, Derek, was thirteen, and as a father, I was dealing with a teenager who grew up with hip hop during its controversial and commercial decade. Years before he became a teen, I made a point of initiating conversations about hip-hop lyrics, video images, and gender messages. Those discussions continued during his high school years as hip hop provided Derek with an outlet for adolescent attitudes and a connection to his peers. My efforts to encourage his appreciation of r&b, jazz fusion, and classic rock had a measurable effect as we took turns listening to one another’s music while traveling, eating, and “hanging” together.

From my brother’s experiences to my son’s adolescent years, hip hop grew in its appeal and influence in society while becoming an integral part of American popular culture. Although the changes in forms and performers ← ix | x → have been many, hip hop’s presence in the entertainment, trends, and commerce of American life continues to be significant.

From the late 1990s to the 2005, as an academic and writer, I traveled to various foreign locations, including London, Paris, Amsterdam, Geneva, Vancouver, and the South African cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Capetown. In various degrees of display, hip hop manifested itself in all of those cities. The once local neighborhood novelty had reached far beyond its Bronx origins and touched young people across nationalistic, cultural, and racial lines. Those attributes of endurance and relevance have continually fascinated me as a professional educator and author.

Consequently, when approaching a third area of critical study on film, following my books Black Directors in Hollywood and Masculinity in the Interracial Buddy Film, the opportunity to examine the junction between hip hop and American cinema was difficult to resist. The hope of this book is that it informs those readers who may not have knowledge of hip-hop culture and its evolution within the framework of American feature films. At the same time, for those hip-hop aficionados who may read the book, I trust that the exploration and assessment here will be comprehensive enough to attain a nod of approval—if not for its success, then at least for its efforts.

Finally, my desire is that Hip Hop in American Cinema will encourage an understanding and appreciation for the ways in which popular culture expressions touch all of us, revealing perspectives about who we are individually and as a society. ← x | xi →


In the time it has taken to research and write this book, I have been able to interact with numerous people who have assisted my approach to the book’s content. From students to professional writers, the numerous statements, opinions, and ideas about hip hop informed me about the value that hip hop holds for so many, both young and old.

With that stated, I must recognize three individuals who were ongoing resources for me in thinking through my exploration of hip hop: Dan White Hodge, Melina Abdullah, and Bakari Kitwana. In particular, Bakari’s friendship and discussions were of great assistance in my completion of the manuscript. Through Bakari and his celebrated Rap Sessions Tour, I was able to benefit from meeting and listening to numerous hip-hop scholars and journalists, including Davy D, Cheryl Keyes, Adam Mansbach, Joan Morgan, Mark Anthony Neal, Ernie Paniccioli, Raquel Rivera, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, and Oliver Wang.

In providing their feedback and recommendations about hip-hop performers and film titles I have to thank Brian Donalson and Derek Donalson.

For taking time from his work to read my manuscript, I have to give my deep thanks to film scholar Andrew Gordon.

In the detailed-oriented work of improving the manuscript, I am indebted to Dr. Heidi Burns and her editing skills. In addition, helping with the completion of this book, I appreciate all of the assistance that Brittany Schwartz, Allison Faust, and Linda Webster have provided.

Once again, I received expert support from the librarians and staff at the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California. At the same time, the financial assistance from the Katherine Carter Fund of the English Department at California State University-Los Angeles was quite helpful.

Finally, for all of her patient listening, encouragement, and insightful perspectives, I am extremely grateful to my wife, Beverly A. Tate. Our many discussions about hip hop, feature films, and youth movements both shaped and sustained my critical approach to this book. ← xi | xii → ← xii | 1 →


When considering the many youth movements of the twentieth century, hip hop ranks as the most enduring and pervasive cultural milestone. As with other such complex phenomena, it did not develop in a vacuum. Over the first six decades of the century, a number of discernible youth movements occurred that collectively contributed to the emergence of hip hop.

First, the 1920s brought the age of the flapper and the “lost generation.” The flapper was an irreverent challenge to traditional images of womanhood, as women dressed in revealing fashions (showing necks, arms, thighs, legs, and ankles); smoking cigarettes in public; dancing wildly in public; and going out unchaperoned with men in the new invention called the automobile. At the same time, the lost generation was a label attributed to young white writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, who criticized American values, wealth, and racism, respectively. In addition, the 1920s fostered the New Negro movement where young black writers, such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, embraced their African American past, grass root communities, and literary aesthetics to proclaim the Harlem Renaissance. Augmenting the literary achievements, other Negro artists were integrated into the Harlem Renaissance collection of talents: Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker on stage; Aaron Douglas and Meta Fuller in painting and sculpture; and Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington in music. The social changes, altered attitudes, and creative energy of the 1920s youth movement was halted by the formidable arrival of the Depression era.

In the late 1940s, the emergence of the beats, or beatniks—young people who stepped away from the mainstream standards to embrace Negro music, Negro language, performance poetry, sandals, loose-fitting clothing, goatees, and marijuana as part of their lifestyles—brazenly rejected the traditional family structure, corporate employment, and Christian ethics. The beats lingered into the fifties with the writing of Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, but the defiant attitudes were absolved into the dominant musical movement of the 1950s—rock-n-roll.

Young people in the 1950s saw the rock-n-roll music as symbolic of a new way of looking at life—freedom to release emotions in public, freedom to enjoy suggestive dancing, freedom to speak a unique vernacular, freedom to celebrate Negro culture, and freedom to lose oneself in the ecstasy of the ← 1 | 2 → moment. With the 1950s youth movement personified through Elvis Presley and Little Richard in music and James Dean in movies, the validation of the rock era endured through its absorption into mainstream culture.

In the late 1960s, the student movement across the country at various universities and colleges assumed a political aspect in anti-war rallies, black power protests, brown power statements, environmental sermons, and women’s rights campaigns. At the same time, the hippie movement, with less political emphasis, attempted to exalt “love” (often meaning uncommitted and frequent sexual trysts), “flower power,” “anti-establishment attitudes,” and hallucinogenic drugs as the pursuits in life.

As each of these movements defined a specific historical era in American society, they all reflected the manner in which young people, organized by age and attitude more than any formal agenda, chose to respond and behave in contrast to the status quo shaped by adults. These movements affirmed the younger perspectives on traditions and conventional standards, i.e., the rebellion against the established norms.

Notably, these movements must be assessed for their bond to racial dynamics, as black American culture continually affected and, in some cases, composed the essence of the creativity and stylings of the movements. In particular, the many forms of black music have drawn nonblack listeners of all ages, but the younger nonblack audience has embraced black cultural expressions in a dedicated, unapologetic fashion. As cultural critics Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon state, “in the last fifty years or so, white teens have identified with the African American subculture, viewing the music of black America as an authentic medium for the expression of their own resentments and desires…. Today, the carefully scripted anger and hostility that can be found in many hip-hop numbers is embraced by white teens as an expression of their own anger—against their parents, against rules and restrictions, against any form of authority at all.”1 This reaching across racial lines by white youths functions as one step in a dialectical process that eventually synthesizes, or co-opts, black cultural expressions into what is typically labeled as mainstream society.

However, hip hop possesses the unique distinction of being a movement that has gone beyond black and white teens as its primary constituency. Unlike other movements, from its earliest years, hip hop contained conspicuous intercultural aspects. Specifically, during its birth in the Bronx, New York, teens from African American, black Caribbean, and Puerto Rican backgrounds participated in hip hop’s various forms. Additionally, the techniques of Asian and Brazilian martial arts fed into dance techniques, later followed by the insertion of white rock and pop music ingredients. ← 2 | 3 → Although a convincing argument could be made that “rap” has its origins and development within black culture, hip hop expressions have been shaped by various racial, ethnic, and cultural contributors. Perhaps, the openness to interracial relationships springs from some optimistic aspect within youth movements, with hip hop exemplifying the contemporary possibilities of racial tolerance. Perhaps, in a parallel fashion to hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of multiculturalism promoted inclusiveness as a progressive facet within American society. Regardless, the multiracial composition of the hip-hop movement remains a significant, measurable component. As scholar S. Craig Watkins concludes, hip hop “has always been multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual. Those qualities formed a movement that has defied all attempts to impose the strict racial definitions and caricatures that endeavor to limit its potential reach and influence.”2


XII, 191
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
USA Hip-Hop Film Geschichte 1984-2005 Hip Hop American Cinema Hollywood Film
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2007. XII, 191 pp.

Biographical notes

Melvin Donalson (Author)

The Author: With a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University, Melvin Donalson is a published poet, fiction writer, and essayist. In addition, he is a screenwriter and director, having completed an award-winning short film, which was shown on Showtime’s Black Filmmakers Showcase. The author of Black Directors in Hollywood (2003) and Masculinity in the Interracial Buddy Film (2006), he is currently Associate Professor in the English Department at California State University in Los Angeles.


Title: Hip Hop in American Cinema
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