Film Review: Love Beats Rhymes

Music artists Azealia Banks and RZA both find their footing in film, with this portrait of a young, gifted and black wannabe female rapper.
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Coco (Azealia Banks) is a college student from Staten Island who has taken a semester off, despite the disapproval of her mother, to pursue her dream to be a rap artist. The challenges she faces, apart from Mom, are the group with seemingly no future in which she’s stuck, and her bandmate/boyfriend Malik (John David Washington), whom she catches cuddled up with a cutie.

So it’s back to school for her, where she studies accounting, a slog until her friend Julie (Hana Mae Lee) drags her to a poetry class. There, Coco encounters the campus’ Maya Angelou, diva professor Dixon (singer-actress Jill Scott) and her comely British teaching assistant, Derek (Lucien Laviscount), who both insist that her beloved hip-hop is anything but poetry. The main body of the film is taken up with this debate, with both sides of the argument alternatively winning and losing, as all three come to learn about genres they once felt were completely alien to them.

This second film from Wu Tang Clan member RZA is a far cry from his debut feature, that martial-arts spectacle The Man with the Iron Fists, and his unexpected focus on a female protagonist is welcome indeed, as is the emphasis on education, which elevates this offering above the usual swaggering, obscenity-laced rap-competition filmic entries. Nicole Jefferson Asher’s script is a wayward thing, sometimes sharply observant and pungent, yet often dripping soapsuds of sentimentality, but RZA keeps things moving briskly, with some nice visual interest and marked attention to the fresh performances of his young cast.

Banks proves that she can indeed act as well as rap, and she makes an ingratiating and blessedly smart heroine. Laviscount is handsome, sensitive and ardent enough to fill any girl’s romantic needs, and their scenes together bristle with all kinds of suggestiveness. Scott has an impressive classroom entrance, basically proclaiming that she is poetry to an open-mouthed assemblage of students. One could, however, cavil with the sound mixing, which is often so noisy that you cannot make out the words to the endless flow of rap and poetry from the screen, which would seem to defeat the whole point of the enterprise.

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