Is ATL(anta) the future of young black cinema?
With an up-and-coming young rapper for a star (Atlanta native Tip "T.I." Harris), a music video director making the leap to the big screen (Chris Robinson), and a former rapper-turned-A-list actor behind the scenes (producer Will Smith), "ATL" has an automatic in with the MTV crowd. The film is deeply rooted in the South and her entertainment world progeny, as some of the story and characters are based on the recollections of producers Dallas Austin and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, who grew up spending nights at Atlanta roller rink Jellybeans, the center of youth culture in "ATL." With appearances from hip-hop celebs like OutKast’s Big Boi, Monica, Killer Mike, Jazze Pha, and more, director Robinson seems to have filled out his cast with as many Atlanta-connected celebrities as possible.
Considering all these music-industry connections, making "ATL" "music-driven" was a no-brainer. Rather ingeniously, instead of having an official soundtrack, "ATL" is being marketed alongside star T.I.‘s newest album "The King," which boasts several songs featured prominently in the film and its trailer; the first single, "What You Know," is omnipresent in promotions for "ATL" and currently sits at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop list.
At the Los Angeles premiere of "ATL," castmember Jason Weaver noted this natural blend of Atlanta music, film, and Atlantan identity. "People have always gotten a representation of Atlanta from the music, but this is the first time that they’re really going to be able to see it visually, and to be able to see the different neighborhoods," he said.
Yet "ATL" manages to be more than just a record exec’s extended music video fantasy; it’s marketed with another subtitle: "A New American Story." It’s this aspect, and the sense that the filmmakers are bringing an underrepresented point of view to the mainstream, that distances "ATL" from other quasi-musicals with record label backing, a la "From Justin To Kelly" or even Usher’s "In the Mix."
Star T.I. plays Rashad, a young Atlanta teen living with his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) in their janitor uncle’s (Mykelti Williamson) home after their parents’ death. Rashad spends his days in what Robinson presents as a typical life for young Atlanta youth: he hangs out at a roller rink called Jellybeans, romances a ghetto fabulous girl called New-New, and plays mentor to his younger, wayward brother while dreaming of a better life for himself. While Rashad pursues a legit future as an artist, his brother Ant gets caught up in the bling and excitement of the local drug dealer, a negative and ever-present reality that "ATL" attempts to discourage. To poet-cum-actor Albert "Al Be" Daniels, who plays Rashad’s buddy Brooklyn, it is this common, yet under-represented voice that defines "ATL" as a "new american story."
"A lot of times when people talk about black culture, they shy away from calling it "American" culture," Daniels said. "But it is. The stuff that happened to us as a people happened to Americans. We are separated because of what we think America is."
In defining the "new American story," and rejecting the simple "African-American" label, "ATL" calls to attention the fact that its narrative, as well as the people and culture of Atlanta, is just as much American as it is that more narrow designation. Newcomer Lauren London, who plays New-New, emphasized the significance of including hip-hop music and culture in that "American" identity.
"American culture has changed, if you look at the effect that hip-hop, and urban music, has had. Our culture is hip-hop, it is urban culture, and T.I. is one of the biggest hip-hop heads right now. Look at TRL, MTV, and BET — that’s all that kids watch.
"I think it’s a really big point that Chris (Robinson) makes," London continued, "because Atlanta music has made such an impact on our culture in America, and it’s a really big part of Atlanta itself."
After opening to a high $12.5 million weekend box office, "ATL" exceeded many expectations last weekend, securing the number 3 spot behind "Ice Age 2"’s incredible $70.5 million and continued returns for last week’s "Inside Man."
It’s a mark of success that could prove significant as more young black performers find it easy to crossover from music to film, a direction star Tip "T.I." Harris seems to be aggressively pursuing. At the LA premiere last Thursday, Harris walked the red carpet with "ATL" producer Will Smith, who made a point of passing the torch to the young musician-actor.
Asked how he knew Harris had the right stuff to carry a high profile, big studio-venture like "ATL," Smith replied, "I can see it, and feel it — he’s just a winner."
Smith seldom left Harris’ side down the press line, a gesture that juxtaposed his successes — music, acting, and now producing — with the younger performer’s burgeoning career.
Harris himself appears to be at the top of his game, with a third chart-topping album flying off shelves and an interest in segueing not only into acting, but into producing films as an extension of his Grand Hustle Entertainment venture, with which he co exec-produced the soundtrack to 2005’s Oscar-winning "Hustle & Flow."
"Grand Hustle films is in the process of developing films right now, and I’m trying to become just as much of an entity in the executive production end of making films as well as the performance end," Harris shared.
"ATL" is now in theaters. Click here for more red carpet photos from the LA premiere.