The last movie I saw in theaters in 2014 was Chris Rock’s Top Five, a personal film Rock wrote directed, and stars in about a comedian trying to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. It’s easy to draw connections between Rock and the character he plays, André, but André’s plight is a familiar one for anyone trying to break out of his or her expected role. We often are seen as being one thing even when everything we do demonstrates that we actually fit into an entirely different category. Unfortunately, I think this is what is happening with Rock’s movie itself.
It’s an issue for any independent filmmaker who is racial, gender, or other identity marker flags him /her as good at one particular thing. Women are nurturers and like romance, so their films should be romantic or about families, or perhaps about being female if they are independents (and therefore assumed feminist). Gay filmmakers must make films about being gay or coming out or else they have sold out. And black filmmakers make movies for urban, inner-city crowds, so they must be crude, angry, violent, and suited to an audience that is unfamiliar with and uninterested in the cinematic conventions of independent filmmaking. Rock, as a major comedian with great crossover appeal, is also more closely associated with television, stand-up, and a Hollywood sensibility than he is with the filmmakers he actually resembles, like the late Adrienne Shelley, Richard Linklater, and even Woody Allen.
In the film André has just made a dramatic movie about a Haitian slave rebellion, but whenever he’s interviewed the press only want to know about his reality TV star fiancée and they repeatedly ask about sequels to his most successful comedy movies in which he plays “Hammy,” a bear. When they do ask about the movie, it is only in reference to how many white people are killed in it with half the interviewers offended by the high number and the other half offended by the low number.
In the meantime, André is followed around by an attractive Latina film writer (Rosario Dawson) for the New York Times (only in a movie does this happen) with her own secret identity struggles. As André reveals to her the key moments in his life leading up to their interview, focusing on his struggles with addiction, we see a man imprisoned by his celebrity who is forgotten his art—the thing he loved and which, ironically, made him famous in the first place. But, interestingly, Rock doesn’t elevate André’s forays into seriousness as though that is his more authentic self. The Haitian movie is also an inauthentic endeavor. He is not a misunderstood genius who just needs to break the shackles of his comedy past; he is a comedian who has just lost his way. The desire to move in the direction of drama is inevitable, (because drama is always taken more seriously than comedy and given more weight), but it is not André’s true path and so it is a failure.
I went to see this film on a Monday night in a suburb of Rochester, New York, so that could explain the small audience, but it was also an audience drawn in by Rock’s celebrity and the rap reference of the title ( top five refers to the question each character answers in the film: who are your top five rappers). Perhaps the film can cross over, as Rock himself has, but I’m not sure it has the legs to do it. Though there is some crude humor (in the best sense), and Rock himself is clearly a charismatic performer, this is a more quiet exploration of identity and the difficulty of being authentic, in opposition to the expectations of others. When “others” means millions of people, as it does when you are a successful performer, that struggle is exponentially greater.
Rock’s directorial style is subtle, straightforward, and focused on character interaction rather than sweeping cinematography or fast cuts. It’s funny in some places (over the top, laugh out loud funny), but it is also a very real human story about losing your way. It isn’t a perfect film, and the performances are uneven, but it is a truthful, smart film and one that deserves a wider audience. More importantly, it deserves a more thoughtful audience than it will likely find.
When I returned to the Cape I saw that only the Cape Cod Mall multiplex was showing the film, even though it is actually better suited to an intimate art-house theater. I don’t think it will do well with this kind of release, but then again the typical art house crowd has grown awfully stodgy in the past decade or so, and they may not be right for it either.
This film about resisting outside pressures and fighting against labels to be who you really are may end up a casualty of the current exhibition climate, which demands classification, low risks, and familiarity bordering on duplication.