Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.
As the holiday season closes another cinematic year, film producers, directors, stars, their agents, publicists and other movers and shakers jockey for position in advance of Oscars. Behind the image makers lie real human beings striving to live actual lives off stage, off script often fighting the same horrible demons as audiences seeing their screen personae.
The Top Five of the title references one’s musical favorites in order of importance and/or influence, chiefly in hiphop. Chris Rock’s latest work traces recent episodes in the career of Andre Allen, a black stand-up comic who transitioned to film farce and now wishes to recreate himself. Like Birdman, it tells a tale of the difficulty of transcending typecasting.
But Top Five is no burnished Birdman. It echoes an insistent cry from African-American artists in film, theater and other performing and creative arts to be seen and heard on their own terms and not merely in the sterile niches to which they may be consigned in popular imagination and by moneyed moguls who call the shots in film factories like Hollywood.
Top Five speaks directly to a particular demographic. Flowing from Chris Rock’s own experience it revolves around a world that may be reduced to the distance between New York and Los Angeles, centering on what it takes to achieve and retain star status. More to the point, it shows black and urban youth culture as the hiphop nation hits middle age.
Top Five is as black as it can be, starting with the effortless string of “n-word” epithets peppering the film’s first half. I lost count after what seemed a half a hundred, but also vividly recall a time growing up in New York when such speech was not foreign to me.
By contrast, there are references to a film within a film, a bold saga of Haitian rebellion.
Dre, as Andre is familiarly known, has made a film called Uprize! detailing the saga of Dutty Boukman, a Haitian slave who became a leader of the insurrection against France.
Making the film was a risky venture for Allen and it symbolizes the analogue of breaking free from the fetters firmly binding him as he seeks to recreate himself as a liberated man.
Rock is joined by Rosario Dawson, J. B. Smoove and a host of luminaries, predominantly albeit not exclusively African-American, whose faces will be instantly recognizable, from movies and television. Top Five may say much more than its cover story or its marketers. Finding this takes conscientious effort by viewers. Then the work can disclose its secrets.