Home Movies Movie Lists

From ‘Wild Style’ to ‘8 Mile’: 20 Landmark Films in Hip-Hop History

A look back at the movies that shaped and defined the culture

hip-hop movies

Hip-hop's history on the silver screen is as wild and wide-ranging as the story of the genre itself. It's full of straightforward biopics, like the just-released N.W.A history Straight Outta Compton, as well as fictitious stories inspired by real life, such as Krush Groove’s dramatization of Russell Simmons and Def Jam’s rise in the music industry. There are crime movies like Belly and inner-city hood tales like Menace II Society; sports movies like Wildcats and weed comedies like Friday. And just as hip-hop culture is a dominant influence on modern society, it also plays an integral role in some of the best American films in recent memory, including Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. So let’s count down some of the most Notorious movies of the hip-hop era. Who’s got the Juice?

ph

‘Belly’ (1998)

Narratively, Belly's tale of two drug-dealing friends expanding their business and waging turf wars was incomprehensible. There are escapades to Atlanta and Kingston, Jamaica, and a subplot involving an assassination attempt on civil-rights activist Dr. Ben Chavis. When DMX isn't grunting and barking out rants to his underlings, Nas stares vacantly like a comatose version of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Where music-video superstar Hype Williams impressed was in his visual aesthetic. He emptied his bag of tricks, from his famed fisheye-lens technique (best captured in a promising opening sequence set to Soul II Soul's "Back to Life") to the sooty outdoor sequences that made the film seem like a blurry dream. Under his direction, Belly displayed all the tropes of hip-hop's late-Nineties jiggy era and its ethos of nouveau-rich thuggin' — even if the film's actual content didn't fulfill its promise.

ph

‘Chicago’ (2002)

What does a screen adaptation of a Fosse musical set in 1920s Chicago have to do with hip-hop? Queen Latifah. With her turn as Matron Mama Morton, the Queen of Royal Badness became the second rapper to secure an Academy Award nomination in an acting category (Will Smith was honored in 2001 for Ali). Chicago, which won six Academy Awards including Best Picture and grossed over $300 million worldwide, helped make Latifah a mainstream multimedia star who would eventually topline major studio films (Bringin' Down the House), host a talk show and become a face of CoverGirl.

ph

‘8 Mile’ (2002)

8 Mile is Rocky meets The Karate Kid with battle raps replacing boxing and karate, but the lack of originality doesn't deduct from its greatness. Starring Eminem in all his self-loathing glory ("I'm a piece of fucking white trash," he raps during the climactic battle), the film elevated the biggest rapper of his time to a higher plateau — rave reviews, a $51 million opening weekend, and a Best Original Song Oscar for "Lose Yourself," the first hip-hop track to win the award.

ph

‘Hustle & Flow’ (2005)

"Everybody gotta have a dream." For Djay, a charismatic pimp (is there any other kind?) portrayed by Terrence Howard, it's to escape a sorry life filled with nickel bags and damaged women — he understands the language of people with short money all too well. Rap stardom, he believes, is his only ticket out. Hustle & Flow is visceral: the sweat is pungent, the desperation palpable. The music hits hard. Though certain plot points now feel antiquated (the third act is essentially, "Please listen to my demo, Skinny Black."), the performers mesmerize, with Howard and Taraji P. Henson, as Djay's main girl, Shug, sharing sizzling chemistry a decade before Empire. More than anything, Hustle & Flow broke ground by setting its story in Memphis, Tennessee, proving that hip-hop, and the strivers within the culture, weren't confined to New York, Los Angeles, or even newer hubs like Miami and Atlanta.

ph

‘Get Rich or Die Tryin” (2005)

When Eminem's 8 Mile revived the hip-hop biopic, a form that had lay dormant since the days of Krush Groove, 50 Cent was the first to capitalize. His poorly received Get Rich or Die Tryin' inevitably suffered from comparisons to Em's Oscar-winning bow. But it's a decent, watchable film. Fiddy isn't a great actor, but he manages to carry his origin story of a drug-dealer-turned-aspiring-rapper who runs afoul of Majestic, played by Game of Thrones actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and clearly inspired by real-life Queens gangster Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff. Director Jim Sheridan coaxed decent performances out of all involved and created a gritty realism that made the story believable (even if much of it wasn't exactly true).

ph

‘Notorious’ (2009)

A warts and all biopic that depicts one of the greatest rappers of all time slinging crack and treating the women in his life (Faith Evans, Lil Kim, and Jan, the mother of his oldest child) like garbage, Notorious is a mixed bag. As Christopher Wallace, Jamal Woolard — in real life, a struggling rapper nicknamed "Gravy" —  is a revelation, nailing Biggie's marble-mouthed voice and veering between sweet and menacing depending on the moment; Derek Luke and Anthony Mackie, however, are disastrously miscast as Puff Daddy and 2Pac, respectively. The film also suffers from its position in recent history. Why watch a reenactment of Suge Knight's, ahem, notorious speech from the 1995 Source Awards when the real thing is available on YouTube? Still, Notorious grossed over $20 million on opening weekend, demonstrating that hip-hop biopics were commercially viable and paving the way for films like Straight Outta Compton.