As used in the film Player Hating: A Love Story, the phrase "keeping it real" is a term of art. A Brooklyn man who goes by the name Ring Dog explains that for someone living in poverty in the Albany Housing Project, it means doing what one needs to do to survive, even if that includes selling crack or using a knife or gun to rob people. It also means he has no illusions about the presence of those dangers in his neighborhood, and he easily could be a victim himself. Filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West describes that situation as a form of perpetual trauma.
Player Hating is a remarkable film featuring unflinchingly candid discussions with rapper Half-a-Mill, his friends and his musical cohorts, the Godfia Criminals. As its name suggests, the film explores the rivalries, raw emotions and sometimes violence experienced by competing rappers and gangs, subjects both lamented and celebrated in hip-hop lyrics. But the film goes behind posturing and hype, and the intimacy and trust allowed by many of the subjects help explain the subhead, "a love story."
"I didn't expect to go into the 'hood and fall in love with these guys," Hadleigh-West says. "I expected to like them, I expected to care about them, but I didn't think I'd fall in love."
In many ways, the film isn't what Hadleigh-West intended at all. As a graduate student in an art school, she made a short film called War Zone, about men cat-calling and harassing women on the streets of New York. After she graduated, she set out to make a longer documentary about the same subject, and it bears the same name. Video clips of the project posted on her website (www.yomaggie.com) show her candidly and fearlessly confronting men on the street and getting them to talk on camera. While making that documentary, she noticed something.
"If you are shooting men who are harassing you in the streets, some of them are going to be disenfranchised," she says. "They were more willing to talk. I got a sense of them."
She had long been a fan of hip-hop music, and she decided to explore poverty and the lives of disenfranchised men and hoped to use hip-hop lyrics as an entry point. It wasn't an easy proposition, she says. She had to put aside the feminism that informed War Zone, and she had to work through racial stigmas and apprehensions she had about filming almost exclusively in crime-plagued neighborhoods (she was robbed on her first day filming).
"I went to a place where the vast majority of people who don't live there would never go," she says.
She wanted a rapper as a main character, and she interviewed seven before she met Half-a-Mill (aka Jasun Wardlaw), with whom she thought she could work.
"I thought it would be a story about a guy who would blow up (professionally) and take me into the hood and show me thug life," she says.
Interspersed throughout the documentary are scenes from the first interview she filmed. Half-a-Mill sits in the stairwell of an empty building, talking about his career, what a "thug" is and how he copes. He has rougher edges, but he also has a wife and two kids. He's determined to escape some of the circumstances of his life through a recording career, which also creates other pressures and expectations.
The film follows Half-a-Mill as he prepares to release Milion (on Warlock Records). He then makes appearances to autograph copies as sales and his notoriety rise. Hadleigh-West also devotes much of the film to Half-a-Mill's friends, men only identified by the nicknames Unique, Real, Shadow, Blood Sport and Dooliani. In a riveting scene, Blood Sport reveals a body covered with scars, and in another, Dooliani listens quietly as his very young son describes having a friend force a gun in his mouth. There is no narrative, and scenes follow the men in their day-to-day lives over several years.
The streets of the Albany Housing Project are a long way from where Hadleigh-West grew up, in a childhood split between New Orleans and Alaska. As an anthropologist, her father took the family with him to Fairbanks and Anchorage, where he worked and where she learned to ice fish. She left New Orleans for New York in the late 1980s, and in addition to her feature documentaries, she's worked for Dateline NBC.
Hadleigh-West returned to New Orleans last year and has been pursuing festival screenings of Player Hating. She's also working on theatrical screenings, particularly for young people affected by poverty and violence. Former City Council President Oliver Thomas will host a discussion following the 7 p.m. screening on Saturday. Hadleigh-West is providing free tickets to area organizations for a noon screening on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Though her film is set in a small pocket of New York, it captures a much bigger story.
"It's a world inside of a world," Hadleigh-West says. "But it's full of awesome human beings who aren't being treated fairly. It's not fair that there's this much violence, this much poverty, this much alienation, this much separation. But they are awesome guys."