Sundance Pick: Filly Brown

Walking in, I thought I had Filly Brown pegged. The trailer gave me the impression it was like every other hip-hop movie I’d ever seen:

  • Young kid from the hood trying to make good? Check.
  • Prerequisite positive rap song that feels like it was pulled from Ghostwriter? Check.
  • Street pressures that are easily overcome? Check.
  • Mandatory plot for women, involving sexing up your image to get signed to the majors? Check.

But hey, I had just gone through three really depressing movies about the fall out of the drug war. I needed something to lift my spirits, and I will shamelessly admit that I enjoyed Brown Sugar. On the real, Filly Brown could have been a Lifetime produced version of the Somaya Reece story, and I still would have watched it!

Luckily, I was wrong.

Okay, on second thought, I wasn’t that wrong. Two and a half of the four I listed above were in the movie. But the team behind Filly Brown managed to add enough new elements to make the standard tropes feel fresh.

Maria Jose “Majo” Tonorio (Gina Rodriguez) is about her business. We meet her in the an LA studio, hungry and ready to get on the mic. Her moniker is “Filly Brown” and her onstage persona is aggressive. Her clothes are made for maximum comfort and street style, and she wasn’t taking any kind of mess. She meets a clownish (yet popular) rapper before one of her sets, and when he grabs her ass, she punches him in the face. (This film is not for pacifists–Majo is quick with her hands, and there is a lot of violence.) Raw and ready, she catches the attention of DJ Santa (Braxton Millz) who unites with her to create a new kind of sound. He believes in her talent, but Majo is under a lot of pressure. Not only is she helping to raise her boy-crazy younger sister and looking after her overworked father, her mother is in jail on drug charges. After being absent for a few years, her mother Maria (Jenn Rivera) reaches out to pressure Majo to finding the money to retry the case.

Her father and uncle will not help her with the money, wary of Maria’s past history, so Majo takes matters into her own hands, leaving the comfort of her close-knit circle and doing whatever it takes to get to the top.

The film flows in two directions–the first, more predictable track is Majo’s journey through hip-hop stardom. The second plot, however, is a bit more compelling. Majo is actually a generation removed from the streets–her father Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips) and her uncle used to live fast and hard, but gave up that life as they grew older. Now as a adults, they’ve struggled to carve out a legal existence. Her father owns a landscaping company with two of his friends from the streets, but they risk losing work when his largest contract believes that the burly, tattooed workers present an undesirable image to her clients. In addition to financial pressures, Jose doesn’t want to tell Majo the extent of her mother’s drug abuse, leading the family lawyer (Edward James Olmos) to threaten to reveal all the family secrets.

The scenes between Majo and her mother at the prison are beautifully acted and heartbreaking–as Majo begins to piece together the web of lies her mother told to further her habit in prison, she becomes angry and resentful. However, her final freestyle to her mother trapped behind the prison glass wrung tears from most of the audience.

Overall, Filly Brown was a hip hop movie with tons of heart and style. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and while it may feel a bit predictable in some parts, Majo is a character worth cheering for.

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  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of the young rapper P-star. I saw the pbs documentary about her a while ago called “P-Star Rising”:  http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/p-star-rising/film.html

    Although P-Star was a lot younger, I can imagine she must be dealing with a lot of the same issues now that she is older.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah

    Thanks for sharing information about “Filly Brown”.  I suppose that title is a play on the  1974 blaxploitation film which starred Pam Grier as the title character. But somehow calling a female “foxy” sounds better to me than calling her  “filly”.