Filly Brown

Filly Brown

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Stories about making it (or being compromised by making it) in the hip-hop world and trying to mark out a better place for yourself and escape 'the life' of downtown LA are a dime a dozen. Directors Michael Olmos (son of legendary Latino actor Edward James Olmos, who starred in Miami Vice and Battlestar Galactica) and Youssef Delara were no doubt aware that given the crowded field, they would have to bring something new to the table with his story about a young Latino Los Angeles hip-hop artist who grasps at a shot for rap stardom, to help free her incarcerated mother.

Luckily for them, Gina Rodriguez walked into the audition room. It's no exaggeration to say that her incredibly infectious zoom-speed charisma and ballsy take-no-crap attitude, not to mention her ability to spit urban poetry, makes the film. Sundance audiences in London, the first members of the public to see this film in the UK, fell for her charms and Rodriguez had them eating out her hand at the Q&As. That is exactly as it should be, the point of festivals like these is to showcase young new talent.

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This contemporary rap-flavoured LA drama sees Majo Tonorio (street name Filly Brown) get within shooting distance of turning a local web radio rapping hobby into a real shot at stardom, though her aim is simply to get enough money to hire local lawyer Leandro (Edward James Olmos) to get her imprisoned mother's case reviewed. Her construction foreman and former gang leader father Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips) wants nothing to do with her junkie mother Maria (Jenni Rivera) and her pretty 17-year-old sister Lupe (Chrissie Fit) is a nightmare of hormones, leaving Filly as the sole conduit to Maria, who pens rhymes for her before their visits. Maria is convinced that there is a break in her case, if only Filly can get $3,000 to a contact named Caesar. Filly feel that she has no choice but to try to help using both Caesar and Leandro, but her extended family refuse to pour more money into the void that is Maria.

Majo's open-mic spot on the local hip-hop radio show opens up the chance of getting the money she needs, however. Teaming up with the quiet and thoughtful resident DJ Santa (Braxton Millz), Majo gains the attention of the rampantly egotistical and foul-mouthed music promoter Rayborn Ortiz (Chingo Bling). Before long he is promoting her at club nights, getting a mixtape down, and introducing her to major producers. But commercial pressures from the marketing machines soon begin to eat into Majo and Santa's promises to each other to focus more on political and social issues as opposed to tired-out gangsta rhymes. Conflicts with the jilted MC Wyatt, who Majo ends up joining on producer Big Cee's label, threaten to spill over into genuinely dangerous consequences for her family. And can Maria really be trusted after all the years of lies and hurt?

Focusing on Latino social issues and putting Latino actors front and centre along with on location shooting can only go some way to countering the charges that Olmos and Delara are serving up a hip-hop story that we've seen a thousand times before. The usual signposts - a young up and coming realizes that success means compromising long held beliefs about 'keeping it real' and must watch younger family members and friends fall under the spell of money and fame - are all here.

If you want stereotypes, such as Latinos acting as gardeners, fathers who were once in 'the life', sleazy music producers, difficult younger siblings, then you've got them by the truckload. At the same time though, Majo doesn't descend into the expected drugs and dollars hell that awaits the fate of many film rappers, though she arguably makes some unlikely decisions at certain points. Though the script keeps her young and trusting enough to be vulnerable, she's strong enough to avoid being totally impressionable. The real challenges she faces might well be coming from within her own family, rather than from the music industry beast. It is refreshing to see a younger character who has been toughened from her family experiences, but not to the level of being defined by bitterness.

Olmos and Delara also could have trimmed off some of the side stories. Though there are thematic links between Jose's plight as he struggles to deal with prejudice and compromise as boss of a construction firm serving LA's white and wealthy, and Majo's, they never feel like a snug fit. Tangents like this simply take us away from the character we want to spend time with Majo.

As Majo, Gina Rodriguez's zest, combined with some genuinely catchy tunes performed by Rodriguez herself, helps paper over the cracks. A colourful LA backdrop of the actual neighbourhoods that Majo is supposed to come from, also doesn't hurt when it comes to authenticity.The presence of Latino american acting stalwarts Edward James Olmos, Jenni Rivera, and Lou Diamond Phillips helps bring some flavour and gravitas. But it's really Rodriguez's show. Expect to see this girl around.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2012
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Filly Brown packshot
A Latino girl counts the cost of becoming a rising hip-hop star.
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Director: Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos

Writer: Youssef Delara

Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Jenni Rivera, Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos, Emilio Rivera, Chrissie Fit

Year: 2011

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2012

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