New York

“Wild Style,” Written, Produced, And Directed By Charlie Ahearn

As a tourist attraction the South Bronx has little going for it. Visitors to this poorly served, largely Hispanic and black community are likely to be sociologists or vote-seeking politicians with an entourage of bodyguards and TV cameras. In Wild Style, however, the media (in the shape of a rather self-conscious Patti Astor) comes to the South Bronx to report on some youthful phenomena, news of which is making waves in a WASP art world always on the lookout for new sensations. Wild Style is a celebration of the vitality that generated graffiti art, rap, and break dancing within an ethnic subculture whose opportunities for self-expression in the mainstream of society have been seriously limited.

Charlie Ahearn, with collaboration on the soundtrack by Fred Brathwaite, AKA Fab 5 Freddie, and Chris Stein, has made a musical in which, as with most examples of this genre, what is lacking in the plot is amply compensated by the pizzazz and enthusiasm of the players. The film has some beautiful camera work and a stylish opening sequence: a night shot of a graffitied wall pulls back to show a dark, stealthy figure moving behind a wire fence, which becomes the plane of focus before the camera shifts back to the wall and the image breaks elegantly into animated graphics.

Lee Quinones plays the soft-spoken and personable hero, Zoro, an admired subway graffiti artist whose identity is a mystery, even among the aficionados. His romance with his girlfriend (Lady Pink, or Sandra Fabara) takes a turn for the worse when she joins a group of publicity-seeking mural painters. Fab 5 Freddie is the entrepreneur who escorts Astor, the token white, around the rail yards and the rap world of Grandmaster Flash, and who engineers Zoro’s introduction to the uptown gallery scene and potential fame and fortune. The narrative ends symbolically with a set-piece concert of rap and break dancing against a mural by Zoro, who surveys the audience from the roof of the band shell.

In some respects, despite its assembly of original and articulate talent, Wild Style represents a missed opportunity to establish an “alternative” movie in the spirit of its own subject matter, or to open up a serious debate on the impulses that generate a subcultural network of codes and on their ambivalent relation to a wider cultural context. With the exception of a few panning shots of the semi-derelict landscape of the South Bronx and passing references to the origins of subway graffiti, Wild Style does not attempt to function as social documentary. We are left with our own speculations about the potentially subversive nature of an urban folk art that, as an affirmation of identity by an underprivileged youth to an indifferent society, has been condemned by the authorities as mere vandalism; and about counter-cultural forms of music and dance that draw on the skills and resourcefulness not of white America but of the Caribbean and black Africa. Like the classical Hollywood musical, Wild Style is about everyone’s desire to be a star, which, as is ironically acknowledged, is impossible to realize without validation and promotion by the mainstream culture, and, consequently, exposure to the risk of exploitation; so far rap and break dancing have not been incorporated into white style to the extent of graffiti art. The strength of Wild Style is an optimism in which the characters retain their self-possession despite intervention by the media—including that of the film’s own production.

Jean Fisher