Directed by: Tamra Davis
Premise: A comedy about the rise of a gangster rap group called Cell Block 4. While participating in a documentary about the group, one of the musicians reveals the true origins of CB4 and it doesn’t match the public story.
What Works: CB4 is primarily a parody. The movie borrows a bit from Rob Reiner’s seminal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap as a documentary filmmaker (Chris Elliot) interviews the members of gangster rap group CB4, which is clearly based on real life band NWA. After nearly being gunned down in a drive-by shooting, group member MC Gusto, played by Chris Rock, tells the true story of the group. It’s revealed that he and his bandmates, Dead Mike and Stab Master Arson (Allen Payne and Deezer D), didn’t actually come from the streets. Rather, they were products of stable middle class families who stole the identities of actual criminals in order to make it in the rap game. When CB4 is in parody mode the movie generally works and it is consistently funny. The filmmakers demonstrate an awareness of the gangster rap scene as it was in the early 1990s and the film critiques the form while also ridiculing the panicked white response to the music. Among the film’s commentary on rap and hip hop is the issue of misogyny. The movie portrays the way misogyny is encouraged and it lampoons the complicity of both men and women in misogynistic art and culture. While having some silly fun with the popular music of its time, the filmmakers of CB4 also integrate a compelling issue into the movie. The conceit of the story raises issues of authenticity and identity. These men are posturing and fulfilling a racial stereotype and being rewarded handsomely for it. But their deceitfulness weighs on the band members, leading them to question their motives. The filmmakers smartly complicate this in the ending as their gangster act starts to become more than a façade. In that respect CB4 was ahead of its time. Musical acts like NWA came from the streets and success elevated them to high society but in many cases these artists continued to write songs as though they were still in the ghetto. CB4 exposes that tension and given the deaths Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG three years after the movie’s release there is something prescient about the satire of this film.
What Doesn’t: CB4 was co-written by Chris Rock and it showcases Rock’s strengths but also his weaknesses. Like his standup routines, the movie is a bit scattershot. There is a lot in this movie but not all of it fits together and some story elements are misused or just disappear from the narrative. This is most evident in the subplot involving a politician played by Phil Hartman. His reelection campaign is floundering and so he launches a moral crusade against CB4, much to the chagrin of his rap loving son. This subplot isn’t used very well and eventually just stops appearing in the film. The other weakness of Chris Rock that is apparent in CB4 is the broad comedy. As in movies like Top Five, the smarter portions of CB4 are offset by sequences of sophomoric humor that aren’t very funny. Some of these jokes leave the viewer with a nasty aftertaste, namely the several instances of homophobic humor. These jokes are relics of the time the movie was made. The parody of CB4 plays well but as with most films tapping into the zeitgeist the references will be lost on those who aren’t familiar with youth and hip hop culture of the early 1990s. In that respect the audience of CB4 is inherently limited. It will play best for viewers who grew up in the era of rap groups like NWA but specific references will fly past older or younger viewers.
DVD extras: Trailer.
Bottom Line: CB4 aspires to be the rap version of This is Spinal Tap. The movie falls short of that but it is consistently funny and in many places quite smart. At the very least it is an interesting artifact from the early 1990s and it would make a compelling double feature with Straight Outta Compton.
Episode: #557 (August 30, 2015)