Fear of a Black Hat is a spoof documentary film about the rap group N.W.H. (Niggaz With Hats), written and directed by (and starring) comedian Rusty Cundieff. Although it was released in 1994, the end credits indicate the film was finished in 1992. (It could be speculated that the patchy production values and expletive-laden dialogue made the picture a difficult one to sell.) The film is heavily inspired by the classic spoof rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap. Ideas such as the treacherous groupie girlfriend, explicitly frank 'ballads', and deaths in mysterious circumstances - Spinal Tap had their string of unlucky drummers, N.W.H. have their bullet-catching managers - may all seem familiar. Even with these occasional overlaps, Fear of a Black Hat manages, by dint of (reasonably) witty and timely observation of its subject matter, to breathe some new life into the genre.

The film covers one year in the life of N.W.H. as observed by earnest and straight-laced media studies student Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons). Over the course of N.W.H.'s rise and fall, they manage to parody a wide range of hip-hop acts and trends from the early 1990s. The group are initially presented as a loose parody of Public Enemy, with some nods (of course) to N.W.A. The trio consists of Ice Cold (Cundieff), Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott) and DJ Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence). Ice is the politicised front man of the group (think Ice T / Chuck D), Tasty is his somewhat paranoid best friend (the name, but little else, being a play on Flava Flav), and Tone is the calm, spiritual one, who utters 'profound' statements that no one can understand. What then follows is a series of sketches and songs lampooning different targets. As with This is Spinal Tap, some of the dialogue appears to have been improvised, although there is a greater reliance on scripted material.

At the start of the movie, N.W.H. find themselves struggling for recognition in the face of ever-growing competition from new acts. We are shown the area where they grew up (Tough Neighboorhood, USA) and introduced to their silly 'philosophy' (a requirement of any successful rap group): the hats, apparently, being symbolic of black America's progression since the days of slavery - because, of course, slaves had to work in the sun without hats.

N.W.H.'s back catalogue is apparently made up of sexist and mindless party records (sending up Digital Underground, Sir Mix-A-Lot, et al) with such titles as 'Garden Ho's', 'Booty Juice' and 'P.U.S.S. Why?', which failed to attract any controversy. With their new album 'Fear of a Black Hat', they adopt politically charged and violent messages ("how many dead cops do we want on the cover?") and rapidly gain notoriety and with it, success. Their new approach is typified by the single Guerrillas in the Midst (its moody black and white video featuring cop killing, the LA riots and the Ku Klux Klan) which puts them at the top of the chart and on the covers of newspapers.

At the time the movie was made, a great deal of media attention was being devoted to the conflict between record labels and outraged pro-censorship groups, with parents, church groups, the government and freeloading parasites like our lawyer friend Jack Thompson calling for rappers to be gagged, fined and jailed. This theme is touched on several times in the movie, most notably when the band are threatened by some local cops that they'll be arrested for profanity if they swear on stage. It is mentioned that one of the band's records - The "Kill Whitey" Album - had been banned before it was even released.

At the height of their fame we see the group enjoying the good life (Tasty showing off his arsenal of weapons, Tone showing off his collection of tennis shoes) - but still they find themselves being harrassed by authority. A run-in with an over-zealous security guard leads to the release of "Fuck the Security Guards". While on tour, Tasty's manipulative girlfriend Cheryl C causes their latest manager to (accidentally) shoot himself and the group to split. Each member tries to start a solo career (showing clear 'influences' of C+C Music Factory - thanks to Walter for pointing this out - PM Dawn and LL Cool J respectively), before eventually reforming for a triumphant finalé.

Although most of the humour is based around quickfire swearing and sending up (many) real-life hip-hop acts, there are some moments that stand out. For one, Nina Blackburn's increasingly disillusioned interviews with the group. ("Some people say that you are misogynists-" without missing a beat "-a misogynist is someone who hates women...") Also, Ice trying to explain the meaning behind their songs through hip-hop acrostics (recently repopularised by MC Paul Barman) such as "N.I.G.G.A.S. stands for Naturally... Intelligence... Gonna Get (That) Ass, and that ASS stands for Another... System... Started...". Or MTV's Kurt Loder appearing as himself delivering deadpan news reports of N.W.H.'s latest exploits. Or the feud with a rival group who release a single entitled "Hats Ain't Shit"...

I should point out that this is a very silly, low-brow film that provides the same kind of unsophisticated entertainment as Mel Brooks's earlier work. It has dated fairly badly and many of the jokes probably didn't work even the first time round. But there's no getting away from the fact that stupid things can be funny, and this film does have some laugh out loud moments (dependent to a degree on whether you recognise the targets for the various parodies, and how adolescent your sense of humour is).


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