The beauty of This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner's first and best work as a director, was that it simultaneously zapped the pretensions both of a species of pop music and of a species of cinema. Heavy metal got an affectionate working over from the film, a sham documentary supposedly chronicling a riotously disastrous American tour by an over-the-hill Brit band, but so did the bogus "rockumentary" form itself.
Fear of a Black Hat employs Spinal Tap's format to let a little air out of gangsta rap. Writer/director/star Rusty Cundieff follows Reiner's parodic model point for point, in fact. The film, which traces the tour of a rap group named N.W.H. (Niggas With Hats), is supposed to be the thesis project of a sociology student, a young black woman named Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons). She's very much the same sort of character as Spinal Tap's "director/narrator" Marty Di Bergi (Reiner)--an intelligent but sympathetic fan who's trying to hide her growing awareness of her subject's absurdity. N.W.H. is a trio--the star and spokesman is Ice Cold (Cundieff), a revolutionary type la Ice-T. He's the group's talkative apologist, always ready to give elaborate political interpretations to numbers like "My Peanuts" or "Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y."--the initials stand for "Political Unrest Stabilize Society Yeah." His fellow vocalist, an angry young man of the Flavor Flav stripe called Tasty-Taste (Larry B. Scott), is less glib, more sincere and incautious on camera. The deejay, and the peacemaker between the egos of the two front men, is Tone-Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence), a quiet, "spiritual" fellow with a penchant for epigrammatic gibberish. The three of them form a sort of graph, on which can be charted most major rap acts.
The plot, which again imitates Spinal Tap, concerns the rift that develops between Tasty-Taste and Ice Cold when the former becomes involved with a meddlesome young woman. Similarly, imitating the high mortality rate of Spinal Tap's drummers, Fear of a Black Hat has a running gag involving the deaths, by stray bullet, of N.W.H.'s managers, who are white (and apparently Jewish). The group members explain that they switched to white managers after their first few managers, who were black, were killed--they didn't want to endanger their own community further.
Some of the gags--like the character of a "short, nearsighted and angry" young movie director named Jike Spingleton (Eric Laneuville)--are handled in a heavy, sophomoric manner which robs them of their potential laughs. But most are quite funny, in their unsubtle way, and the actors, especially the round-cheeked, sweetly opaque Lawrence, are endearing. One of the film's major strengths is the poised and lovely Lemmons (who played Jodie Foster's roommate Ardelia in Silence of the Lambs). As the filmmaker, she makes a fine deadpan foil to the antics of N.W.H. Fear of a Black Hat is at its best, however, in the gleeful spoofery of its musical numbers, all of which were co-written, impressively, by Cundieff. His soundtrack sends up groups ranging from Public Enemy to C&C Music Factory to Digable Planets, but like the best parody, it transcends mere mockery--much of it is good, listenable music. In the process of deflating rap's pomposities, Cundieff also demonstrates that, however infested with poseurs it may be, however high its ratio of crap to quality, rap is a rich, expressive musical form.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.