Fly By Night

(Drama with music)

Sundance Film Festival 1993–Fly By Night, a film set in the contemporary black rap scene in New York City, belongs to the genre of black-themed movies that have recently hit the American cinema. Directed by Steve Gomer, the often-compelling film is marked by an alert intelligence and undeniable urgency.

But it's too ambitious for its own good, trying to encompass too many issues faced by its characters and the economic and racial realities that shape their lives. Fly By Night also suffers from an inconsistent mood and a pat ending. Still, prospects for theatrical release are excellent for a film that boasts great rap music and authentic settings.

Todd Graff, who recently scripted Used People, centers on three young rappers who have nothing in common except passion for their music. Rich (Jeffrey Sams), is a subway token clerk who leaves his job, his wife (MC Lyte), and young son to pursue his career as rap artist. I (Ron Brice) is a bald, angry rapper who seeks, above all, honor and esteem. Rich's cousin Kayam (Darryl “Chill” Mitchell) functions as the reconciliator between the often-antagonistic band mates.

The three men form a rap group, “The King and I,” that exploits their different talents to advantage. I, the most honest and scarred of the trio, produces cynical, bitter lyrics, which are countered by Rich's softer, more romantic ones.

Fly By Night vividly captures the diverse world of rap, showing with meticulous attention to detail both the acts of creation and presentation of rap music. The performances, featuring first-rate rap by Sidney Mills and others, are without a doubt the film's strongest and most exciting scenes.

Though the film's milieu is particular and its view focused, it also successfully conveys the more general problems faced by black artists in a white-dominated society. Specifically, their anger and frustration, and the fine line they walk between needing acceptance and yet fearing that commercial popularity might compromise their integrity.

So long as the film deals with the rappers' professional world, the film is most engaging. But ambitious pic veers off course when it aims at encompassing its characters' romantic, sexual and family lives.

Regrettably, the most riveting relationship in the narrative, between Rich and I, remains underdeveloped. Though both experience violence in their inner-city neighborhoods and blatant racism in the larger society, their philosophies of music–and life–are totally different. Rich is more mainstream oriented, as he attempts to better his position in life. In contrast, assimilation and pandering to the public are out of the question for I, whose main goal is not success or popularity, but respect.

Main interactions in pic are interspersed with a gallery of offbeat characters, such as Denise (Maura Tierney), a white girl enamored of Rich; Sam (Yul Vasquez), her gay roommate; Naji (played by writer Graff), a white junkie; aggressive club managers, sleazy record producers, demanding fans.

Fly By Night differs from the recent slat of black movies in that it was written and directed by white filmmakers. However, only seldom does the film betray its white sensibility, as in the scene between a record executive and the rappers. It's unlikely that a black writer would have used such dry, academic analysis in explaining to the musicians their opportunities in a white dominated industry.

A more severe flaw is the film's pat, compromising ending which not only defies the logic of the narrative, but also negates the darker, disillusioned tonality that precedes it.

Still, the three leading men make for an enticing ensemble. It's hard to tell from Jeffrey Sams and Ron Brice's acting that both are newcomers to the screen. Real-life rapper Darryl “Chill” Mitchell brings a natural effortlessness to the role of Kayam.

Shot on location in New York, director Gomer fortuitously keeps the atmosphere raw. Larry Banks' cinematography has a snazzy verve: His edgy, probing and restless camera befits the restlessness of the rappers and their music. Bringing snap to the tale, editor Norman Gay gives the movie an aptly abrupt, eccentric rhythm.

What the film lacks in its family subplot and weak, almost stereotypical female characterization, it more than makes up in its depiction of rap as a distinctly black urban phenomenon. Fly By Night contributes to the understanding of rap world in all its dimensions: its expression of political dissent and poetry of street life, its function as survival strategy, and its service as popular entertainment.

Credits

A Lumiere Productions production. Produced by Calvin Skaggs. Executive producers, Mark Gordon, Chris Meledandri, and Clarence Jones. Co-producer, Ken Golden. Directed by Steve Gomer. Written by Todd Graff. Camera (Technicolor), Larry Banks; editor, Norman Gay; music, Sidney Mills, Dwayne Sumal, Kris Parker; production design, Ruth Ammon; art direction, Llewellyn Harrison; set decoration, Nancy Friedman; costume design, Alexander White; sound, Fred Rosenberg; casting, Pat Golden, John McCabe.

Running time: 100 min.

Cast

Rich…………………Jeffrey Sams
I………………………Ron Brice
Kayam………Darryl “Chill” Mitchell
Naji…………………..Todd Graff
Rickey Tick………….Leo Burmester
Rock…………………….Soulfood
Jed Lyte……………Larry Gilliard
Jihad…………………Omar Carter
Denise………………Maura Tierney
Sam…………………..Yul Vazquez
Akusa…………………….MC Lyte
Maurice…Christopher Michael Gerrard
Charlotte…………….Ebony Jo-Ann

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