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Number One with A Bullet (2009)
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by Jay Seaver

"Some good information, but many of the same problems as its subjects."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: "Number One With a Bullet" begins provocatively, with a black man walking into a custom framing store looking to have the clothes he was wearing when he was shot framed. The man at the counter doesn't seem to consider this much more than a somewhat unusual request, promising that the framing will preserve the blood.

One slick-looking set of opening titles later, we're in Colorado, where an energetic white gun shop owner, "Dragon Man", demonstrates that it's not jut inner-city hip-hop fans with a taste for handguns and assault weapons. After that, the movie settles into something of a groove, interviewing hip-hop artists who have either been targets of or participants in shootings and exploring the relationship between hip-hop and gun violence. The short answer: Music doesn't make people shoot each other; the rappers are just applying the old adage of "write what you know", and what people in poor neighborhoods know is violence.

That's not a particularly unreasonable conclusion, and it thus doesn't take the movie very long to get around to it. It's more of an assertion than a truly convincing argument, though: For all the evidence that hip-hop is not nearly the bad influence that poverty is, the film shies away from addressing the possibility of a more complex relationship. Artists are more dismissive than defensive at any suggestion that they're part of the problem, but Cypress Hill's B-Real does admit that it troubles him a bit when he gets mail saying people played his music to psych themselves up to go out and shoot some people.

Another issue is that for a good portion of the interview subjects, I'm not sure whether they are successful musicians who came from a rough background or hoods trying to break through as rappers. Ice Cube and Mos Def, I've seen in movies; Graffix out in Colorado is clearly a drug dealer first; but for the likes of Nashville's Young Buck and Mobile's The Last Mr. Bigg (aka Diamond Eye), I don't know. I don't have the cultural context, and the film doesn't do much to supply it.

It may not need to do so; if the audience for this movie is hip-hop fans and the intent is to deglamorize urban violence, it makes a good stab at it. There's interesting interview footage with Ice Cube saying that the guns were initially stage props when he burst on the scene with NWA, with Jerry Heller (the record company exec who happily acknowledges his own greed and ambition) saying that the real thugs were the next wave. Various artists talk about the times they were shot (Prodigy from his hospital bed, from whence he'll be transported to jail), with mention given to well-known fatalities like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. Also getting some face time are a pair of doctors: Dr. Scott Charles, of Temple University, talks about a program he runs to make sure that local youngsters get a look at the trips to a shock trauma ward that seldom makes it into lyrics; Dr. Knight of UCLA shows what kind of havoc a bullet can wreak on the central nervous system, and also advances the theory that growing up in poverty and desperate circumstances have their brains develop differently, making them more prone to violence.

Rapper KRS-One says something similar, though in his phrasing people carry guns for protection, but what's that mean when you're afraid of the very air around you? KRS-One is one of the most captivating and thoughtful speakers in the movie, one who has clearly given a great deal of thought to the subject. Just as fascinating is the star of the show from the other end of the spectrum, The Last Mr. Bigg. A hulking giant of a man with a diamond-studded glass eye from his close encounter with a bullet, he fills the screen visually but doesn't seem interested in change despite his policeman father and daughter in junior high. The gaudy diamond is all about using his proximity to violence as status.

To a certain extent, I think "Number One With a Bullet" falls victim to the charisma of the likes of Bigg: For all the points it makes about violence being the result of poverty, it seems a bit star-struck, right down to the "Free Prodigy!" and "Free Graffix!" lines in the credits. It almost seems like its subjects in microcosm - arguably just showing what is, but legitimizing its content even when that's not the intention.

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originally posted: 03/24/09 03:00:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/17/09 Mayra Padilla Fantastic 5 stars
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