Images courtesy of MOCA Los Angeles
Kahlil Joseph’s film m.A.A.d, which appeared on YouTube today, began its life as a visual backdrop for Kendrick Lamar’s 2013 tour opening for Kanye West. In case you were in a coma in 2013, Kanye’s set pieces, costumes and stage shows on that tour were probably the most extravagant of his career. Not to be outdone, Kendrick enlisted the help of filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, known for his short film “Until the Quiet Comes,” to create visuals that would serve as his backdrop during the tour.
m.A.A.d’s picture of Compton is lush. The camera wanders through a barbershop, a public pool, a high school gym and football field, a street populated by a block party, and shows a young, shirtless man dancing and flexing by the LA River. Pretty much every shot suggests the hand of a capable cinematographer. It also includes home videos from Kendrick Lamar’s family in 1992, and news clips from the Rodney King riots. The two-screen setup divides your attention, continuously luring your focus from one to the other. Perhaps it’s best to watch the film four times: once switching between screens; once only looking at one screen; once only looking at the other; and then once more watching both.
It’s Joseph’s film, but in many ways it’s a companion to Kendrick’s music and the story he tells through it. The soundtrack is mostly composed of samples from Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 effort Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, but with alternate mixes and cinematic fade-outs. You’ll hear a cappella verses where they were over beats on the album. During a scene at the pool the sound is mixed to emulate the sensation of hearing music underwater as the camera pans above and below the surface.
Joseph doesn’t exactly ignore the story that Kendrick tells in Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, but he doesn’t fully embrace it either. The film invites you to experience Kendrick’s mad city, but it’s presented more like a dream about Compton than an actual documentation of it. You jump from one location to the next without knowing how you got there. You see strange images—a horse galloping down a city street, bodies hanging upside down from street lamps and liquor stores like sleeping bats—and like a dream, you exit wondering what they all meant. That scene with the horse might sound amusing if you haven’t seen the film, but it comes during one of the film’s most climactic sequences: a simulated drive-by shooting with people running in terror, lights flashing, and the booming sound of Lamar’s track “m.A.A.d City” underneath it all.
The news clips from the Rodney King riots and the fictional flashes of violence within m.A.A.d conjure images from the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson in recent months. The press release from MOCA about the film alludes to this, and cutting forward twenty years from the LA riots forces you to contemplate what’s changed and what hasn’t. But what m.A.A.d can show you that those news clips can’t is the day to day circumstances of people in Compton—the actual living and dying that goes on when the news cameras disappear.
Because Joseph is a deft filmmaker, these moments have mood all their own. He’s found a way to communicate hanging out poolside or looking out the backseat window with a gravity that you can feel as you watch the film. It isn’t a secret that Compton has a reputation for violence. Joseph doesn’t ignore that reputation (and neither did Lamar, for that matter), but he shows you a more complete picture than you’ve probably ever seen before. He takes your preconceived ideas about Compton and posits: sometimes people here are just, you know, living their lives.
In an LA Times interview, Joseph says that on-screen representations of black Americans don’t often resemble reality. That’s one of the reasons he wanted to make this film, and it’s one of the reasons he wanted to work with Lamar. Joseph recognized honesty and insight in Kendrick Lamar’s music that’s hard to come by in films and TV. That could be why, of all the tracks you’ll hear in Kahlil Joseph’s film, the one he samples for the longest duration is “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” In that song, Lamar raps lines from the perspective of different characters in his music, stepping back in a sense and letting them tell their own stories of loss, regret, and hope for the future. In the same way, Joseph lets Compton speak for itself, and shows you something more realistic than the movie version of it, and so much deeper than the version that you might see on the news.