Film Recommendation: “ATL”

Another black people in the ghetto movie. No thanks.

I thought this very thing when I became aware of the 2006 film “ATL”. I didn’t want to subject myself to another 90 minutes of cursing, gun fights, loud obscene music, and narcotics. I figure this is what most of America thought because when “ATL” was first released it died a quick death at the box office and therefore was a total failure and deemed unworthy of being seen by human eyes.

but you know…..

You could almost frighten yourself if you stopped to consider how much negative preconceptions can rob you of new and wonderful experiences in life.

The truth is “ATL” is perhaps the greatest coming of age story to hit the screen in the past two decades. It almost makes up for the awful bleak 90’s where every black coming of age story was used as an excuse to perpetuate negative stereotypes and punish audiences with repugnant afro-centric content (stereotypes rightfully skewered in the great underrated Wayans Bros. comedy “Don’t Be a Menace In South Central While Drinking Your Juice In the Hood”). “ATL” is a great film. Not just a great “black” film mind you but a plain great film. The hallmarks may seem familiar for it does in fact does contain elements of guns, drugs and hip-hop music, but never used in an intrusive or exploitative way (as if that is all life is for these people). We are not asked to feel sorry for anybody on the screen or identify (worship) the criminals in society. We are asked to sit and experience through expressive immersion, a culture that on the surface may seem alien to our own but in fact contains individuals with dreams, hopes, and fears just as valid and worthy as yours and mine.

The Plot

courtesy of

A tightly knit group of working-class Atlanta teens spend their time bonding over hip-hop and roller skating while pondering life after high school in a coming-of-age comedy drama that draws inspirations from the real-life childhoods of Dallas Austin and Tionne Watkins. For a kid growing up on the south side of Atlanta, the Cascade roller-skating rink is the place to be seen, and it’s the place where the orphaned high school senior Rashad (Tip Harris) and his little brother Ant (Evan Ross) go every weekend to forget their financial troubles, hang with their friends and get their groove on. But outside the rink, the brothers have problems they can’t avoid: Ant is being recruited into the posse of charismatic drug dealer Marcus. Meanwhile, Rashad’s three best friends — including the ambitious Esquire (Jackie Long) — are pulling him in different directions, and his new girlfriend New-New (Lauren London) may not be as “street” as she seems. As Rashad tries to hold on to his little brother, he also comes to the realization that if he’s ever going to make something of himself, he’s going to have to step out of his skates and into the real world.

Like Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” or Badham’s “Saturday Night Fever” the trappings of culture and genre (Italian crime movie, disco) are easily transcended. You come to see these people on the screen as more than stereotypes. The struggles and themes are stronger and more universal than what is found in the typical “ghetto” movie. Or at the very least they are presented with a different more enlightened perspective. The debate of class and culture, what selling out truly entails, the wonderful ambiance of youth, and the painful, yet not entirely hopeless, transition to adulthood are all touched upon in fresh and interesting ways. The direction of Chris Robinson is a revelation. He seems to have limitless amounts of cinematic style to spare but does not overload with an excess of visual tricks (as is typical of music video directors gone cinematic). The lighting, effects, and design are all out of the ordinary but not obtrusively so. Robinson’s goal was not to dazzle with flair but immerse the viewer in the sweaty, steamy world of the ATL and the lives of its inhabitants. Its a pleasure to watch and at times extremely enthralling. Finally, it seems the avant garde has come to the “ghetto”.

The performances are amazing. At first the casting of a rap musicians as the main leads would seem like a lazy choice: something purposefully done just to bring in the young kids. That maybe so but you would never know it by watching the picture. T.I. and Big Boi are both brilliant in their roles as the hero and villain of the piece. T.I. brings a grace and nobility to the part usually not found in most “ghetto” movies. A natural onscreen thinker. You enjoy watching him sit and pontificate for you know his thoughts are of a special more deeper caliber than the environment around him. Its a joy watching with him interact with his friends, girlfriend and little brother for you see how much he enjoys and cares for them. Most hero characters in ghetto movies are repugnant anti hero’s. We’re supposed to sympathize with their poor life choices and horrendous acts because we figure that this is the best they could do under the circumstances (see “Hustle and Flow”) and demanding anything better from them would be culturally insensitive. This isn’t he case with T.I.’s character Rashad for he possess dreams, talent, and a huge heart. However this is not an after school special. His dreams are grounded, his talent practical and his heart guarded. He is not an angel, he just never uses the environment around him or his culture as an excuse to be an bad person. When evaluating the genre of black coming of age films and how the performances have evolved (little) over time T.I.’s Rashad must be viewed as a game changer.

Similarly, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of the progressive hip-hop group Outkast, gives a unique interpretation on the ghetto villain in his character Marcus, the drug dealer Rashad’s little brother Ant goes to work for. In most ghetto pictures the antagonist is an awful characterization no better than a rabid animal. Foul language, decrepit morals (even for a villain), and horrendous conduct are the usual hallmarks. These performances are routinely celebrated by an unwitting condescending public who confuse the ability to be a lowlife with the depth of an actors technique. Big Boi’s Marcus however is a great villain in the strictly cinematic sense. He is refined, charismatic and charming: a king among ants. You often wonder in most ghetto movies how a lot of these unruly people could ever be the head of a crime organization. With Marcus it is easy to see how. However his charm and refinement is not a theatrical embellishment but a truthful revelation of societal norms for in reality the individuals on the street who conduct crime and seduce people into their lifestyle posses a sort of ruthless charm and charisma themselves that is in its weird way attractive. The character of Marcus captures this brilliantly and truthfully. If its true that the great cinematic villains are not unruly monsters but snapshots of fractured humanity than Big Boi’s Marcus deserves consideration among the great modern villains in recent cinema.

With all that said “ATL” still may not seem like a movie you would be inclined to seek out, despite my endorsement, but I am sure you would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying coming of age film. For those of you are still convinced you are outside the target audience for the film, I would like to paraphrase Pauline Kael from her review of Ossie Davis’ “Black Girl”:

“I liked watching the people on the screen. They embody different backgrounds and different strategies for survival”

With this in mind I urge you to get out of your cold dry comfort zone, and immerse yourself in the hot sweaty world of the dirty dirty south.

Don’t be scarred by the trailer. The studio didn’t know how to market it any other way than a ghetto drama.


The film contains a brilliant tracking shot that is on par with the Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas”. Watch for it.


About celluloidhumanoid

Celluloid Prophet

Posted on August 13, 2012, in Film and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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