Style Wars

Style Wars

Style Wars is the Star Wars of the hip-hop generation. Just as Star Wars ushered in the era of the special-effects blockbuster, Style Wars is the founding film of the hip-hop cinematic genre–the one that got you open, the one that showed you there was some cool-ass shit goin’ on, and it wasn’t going on a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It was New York City circa 1983, birthplace of hip-hop and all things cool.

Graffiti is in full swing, along with its physical complement, breakin’ to the soundtrack of emcees and deejays. Henry and Martha Chalfant capture it all, from instructionals of basic moves from Rock Steady Crew, to an MIA underground to the train station.

Style Wars is the first movie that showed this culture honestly and highlighted its three convergent art-forms.

Like its namesake, Style Wars is populated by heroes and villains as wonderful as the Cantina scene in Mos Eisley. Introduced to the world outside 1983 New York City are Crazy Legs, Rock Steady Crew and a host of other breakers and gangs. And while emcees and b-boys get their nod, it is in the graffiti that the film truly soars.

The artists are often as wild as their work: there’s Cap One, villain of vandals, whose throw-ups over other writers causes an unprecedented summit at the writer’s bench. Or Kase 2, the first one-armed King of the Lines. And we can’t forget Skeme and his moms, whose exasperation is both believable and hilarious.

Then there’s the art itself: car after car of top-to-bottom burners in every colour. The politics and context of the era are also preserved in interviews with transit authorities and then-mayor Ed Koch. The reality is that NYC was a mess back then, with garbage and transit strikes and rampant crime. However, the streets were equally alive with art, from words and records to aerosol to physical expressions of bodies popping and locking. The film succeeds because it captures that vibrancy and the innocence of the city and culture in the ‘80s.

Rick Kang

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