"Urban" cinema tends to mean black cinema or cinema reflecting a "Ghetto" experience often from a youthful perspective. So I will that as a rough guide and then narrowing it down to crime related and violent features I'm going to look at some of the best from this "Genre", if it can really be called a genre.
1. La Haine (1995) Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz
La Haine is arguably the best "Urban" film ever made, certainly the most politically charged and the one with the most impacting ending. French Jewish director Mathieu Kassovitz may have gone on to make the crappy Gothica, but in 1995 he made the best film of the year. So the top film on my list is not American as you would expect, but French. In fact as far as I am aware, a decade after its release the film which took won best director and was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes is still not available in the US. This is the film that made the French police guarding Cannes turn their backs to the cast and crew as they passed. The film follows 3 friends Vinz, Hubert, Saïd as the pass the day in the aftermath of riots the night before. Kassovitz shot the film in colour, but then printed it to B&W because he wanted the film to be taken as more than just another "Ghetto" or "Hip Hop" film. While the French ghetto is very apparent in the film and scenes of break dancing and an iconic DJ scene mean the film drips hip hop culture in places his film is indeed much more. All the performances are dead on, with the three leads Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde and Saïd Taghmaoui all first class. One of the best and maybe the most powerful films of the 1990's. Fans of Urban film, World Cinema, modern B&W cinema and just great movie making in general have no excuse for not owning or at the very least having seen La Haine.
2. Fresh (1994) Directed by Boaz Yakin
Yet another Jewish director takes on bringing a Ghetto set story to the screen. And why not, after all the word was spawned from a Jewish experience. Fresh is set in a mixed Hispanic and Black area of New York and follows the story of a young boy known as Fresh. Fresh is a classic case of a mind gone to waste, in a different setting he would be following a life that would lead to higher education and a successful career. Fresh how ever is not in a different pace he lives in the inner city hood and is a runner for drug gangs. Running heroin for slimy Hispanic drug lord Esteban and Crack for paranoid black gangster Corky, Fresh is in deep and having to live a life way beyond anything someone his young years should experience. Everyone keeps telling Fresh he's going to be the man one day, but it’s not what he wants. Fresh is torn between the streets and a home crowded home life at his aunt's. Fresh's father portrayed by a still relatively unknown Sam Jackson is a Chess master and a drunk who fresh makes regular visits in the park to play against. The films plot see' the combining chess concepts into a tale reminiscent of Yojimbo. The expected Hip Hop score is absent, in its place is a score by Stuart Copeland similar to that he provided for Rumble fish. Cinematographer Adam Holender was called in and Yakin persuaded him to use the old school feel he used on the Oscar winning midnight Cowboy some 25 years earlier. Great performances, especially from young Sean Nelson as Fresh, but all the cast are strong. Fresh's life may change but the cost will be high. Fresh won Boaz Yakin the Filmmakers Trophy and was nominated for Grand Jury Prize as well as earning Sean Nelson Special Jury Recognition for technical acting.
3. City of God (2002) Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund
Carrying the tagline Fight and you'll never survive..... Run and you'll never escape Brazilian film City of God blew away just about everyone who saw it in 2002. Stylish and backed by a funky soundtrack City of God was an exceedingly hip piece of cinema. Behind the cool, is really a very tragic look at modern Brazil and the utter desperation that faces those living out there lives in the roughest parts of Rio de Janeiro's favela's. In city of God life is not just cheap; it's to be thrown away like rubbish. The directors succeed in bringing a multi character movie to the screen where many would fail. Although it revolves around, but does not centre on, Rocket a young man with a love for photography growing up in one of the most violent places on earth. How ever the film weaves in friends, acquaintances and other locals who do not always directly affect Rocket himself. In many ways he is more observer than participant in much of the film. Rocket is around, but not involved in the madness that surrounds him. City of god is also notable for giving us one of modern films most chilling characters in Li'l Ze whose childhood murder spree is made even more shocking by the fact that there are people like him out there. Like Fresh, City of God does not shy away from child death, but is more shocking in that here the killers are often not long out of dypers themselves. Everyone should have seen this by now, but if not it's another must.
4. Menace II Society (1993) Directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes
OK so the common theme of a young man who wants to get out is in place, but if you lived somewhere that violent would you not want out. Two years after John Singleton's critically praised seminal film Boyz n the Hood the Hughes brother’s unleashed Menace II Society. Menace was highly quotable, cool and violent. For many people who had grown to be first fans of Hip Hop and then of the gangster rap subgenre menace was the celluloid version of a Compton’s most wanted or N.W.A album. Mc Eiht of CMW even has a strong supporting role as OG A- WAX. The great thing about this film is it works both on the level of great pop culture fun and as a series look at life in the gang infested area's of LA. The way the neighborhood in which your are born in seriously lessons the chances you have in life. Even those characters who want out find themselves just as caught up as those who accept the desperate nihilism of life in the area. The never ending tit for tat killing, the senselessness of fighting wars from which there is nothing to gain. Larenz Tate as Kevin 'O-Dog' who really just does not give a f**k is awesome ... anybody want a cheeseburger?
5. Juice (1992) Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson
Black genre director Ernest R. Dickerson's impressive New York based feature is often criminally overlooked when it comes to discussing Urban cinema. Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur both give blistering performances as the lives of four close friends take a downward turn. As with La Haine one of the pivotal moments is the gaining of a gun by one of the leads, guns equal power and with power you can gain "The Juice". Tupac may not have been your favorite music performer or personality, but here his acting skills as the dark brooding Bishop are beyond reproach. Bishop is a genuinely scary character, the kind of psycho friend you know is bad news but you just can't escape. Backed by an appropriate Hip Hop (real hip hop not MTV rap) score including the legendary emcee Rakim's "know the ledge" Juice is more firmly embedded in hip hop culture than the other films on the list. That’s not to say it's a rap movie just that it appropriately reflects the New York scene in the early nineties. Omar Epps drips charisma as upcoming DJ Q and the supporting cast is strong. The look on his face as he walks away from the rooftop at the end of the film and a member of the crowd tells him he has the Juice say's it all.
Not included: I've left off Blaxploitation films from the films I considered as they are a different thing entirely. I also discounted films that are essentially organised crime flicks like New Jack City and king of New York and Police flicks like Colors. Prison films are also ignored such as Bound by Honor. Urban, black and ethnic cinema covers a lot more than just "Growing up in the hood", but for the purposes of this five violent hood stories was an appropriate theme and just because that is the focus it does not make the films any less powerful.
Also see: Boyz in the hood, Spike Lee's work in particular Do the right thing, Colours, Jason's Lyric, Animal, Dead Presidents, Bound by Honor (Blood in, Blood out), American Me.
Trivia: Samuel L. Jackson appears in all 3 of the American movies in my 5.
Buy the films:
La Haine: (UK Ultimate edition) As the film has no North American release the best bet for those of you out there with region free players order a UK version via hkflix.com
Fresh: No UK (region 2) DVD for this one so amazon.com
City of God: amazon.com | amzon.co.uk
Menace II Society: amazon.com | amazon.co.uk
Juice: Again no UK (region 2) option so amazon.com
... more Late - Fives