Generation X has officially arrived into Get off my lawn! territory. VH-1’s television movie The Breaks premiered last night amid a rush of high expectations and genuine curiosity. The critical question: is it really time to revisit the ’90s? It’s a thorny idea to take on a look-back film. (There’s a reason why That ’70s Show was a success while That ’80s Show was a flop.) If the setting is not far back enough in time, you risk having an entire audience with their faces inches from the screen ready to yell out, “that’s not how we did it in MY day!”
Based loosely on Dan Charnas’s 2010 book, The Big Payback: The History of the Hip-Hop Business, The Breaks stars Afton Williamson as Nikki, a feisty college grad determined to kick in the door of the hip-hop industry at the tail end of hip-hop’s late 1980s golden age. Nikki’s hell bent on making it—even if it means lying about her education, sneaking into clubs, scrubbing toilets, and getting vomited on by a brilliant but flawed rap artist.
Brilliant but flawed; it’s the same phrase that can be used to describe The Breaks itself. The film’s biggest issue is the main character tasked with carrying the film. From her wooden acting to her unfortunate outfits, Williamson just wasn’t up to the task. Her hair and wardrobe were particularly a problem. Throughout the film, she rocked an inexplicable curly blowout instead of the stacked asymmetrical bob that was all but essential for an east coast hip-hop B-girl in the ’90s. And her wardrobe? No vintage kicks. No acid-washed denim. No 8-ball jackets. No baggy jeans or sexy-but-masculine sweats. Instead, there were jumpsuits and ankle boots involved.
In places, The Breaks felt forced. How many times would an up-and-comer really be forced to clean toilets on her knees with a scrub brush before getting an actual job in the industry? And what are the chances she could get her big chance after throwing a drink straight into the face of her would-be boss? Don’t be mistaken; the stories of ’90s era hip-hop are filled with champagne-bottle beatdowns, violent threats against reporters, back door money wrangling and artist exploitation. But some moments in The Breaks actually tread lightly on the true headiness of the era.
There are points to be given for risks taken in the film. Nikki’s boyfriend is White. And the movie knows better than to make that A Thing. He’s her man and he loves hip-hop (and Black girls) like so many White kids have since hip-hop began. The true win for the film are the supporting characters, strong enough to bring The Breaks into winning form.
Wood Harris is stellar as the hotheaded owner of the management company Nikki works for. Tristan “Mack” Wilds proves definitively that his acting prowess is only improving in each role he takes post-The Wire. His earnest turn as an up-and-coming producer looking for his big break is heartwarming. His father, played by Method Man, is at his best, easily the most entertaining character in the film with just a scant few minutes of screen time. (Yes, Method Man is playing a grown man’s father. Hey ’70s babies, have you checked your social security accounts lately?) And Antoine Harris is pitch-perfect as a dead-eyed rapper who finally allows Wilds’s character to bring him into the studio and off the streets. The score and soundtrack alone, helmed by the legendary DJ Premier, give The Breaks a strong setting and keep viewers rooted in the era.
Ultimately, The Breaks did its job: two hours of back-down-memory-lane hip-hop and a handful of original hip-hop verses that could stand on their own, Empire-style.
To add to its authenticity, there are several Easter eggs and guest cameos planted for the benefit of hip-hop’s true aficionados (like appearances by Prince Paul and legendary music executive Faith Newman, coupled with nods to the origin stories of rappers like Nas and music industry stalwart Steve Stoute).
The hardest question to answer about The Breaks should be an easy one—is it any good? So much of that depends on who you are and what your connection is to old-school hip-hop. If you lived it, The Breaks doesn’t quite capture the era the way you remember it. (Music executive Irv Gotti, a Queens native, was less than pleased). But if you lived it, you’d be impossible to please anyway.
If you’re a millennial who’s not emotionally invested and just getting an entertaining history lesson, there’s enough reality to hold your interest. And with a wait, that’s it? end scene, it’s clear the movie is a backdoor pilot set up to be a series. With time (and a new wardrobe stylist), The Breaks could become required watching for millennials—and their parents.