Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Every once in a while I veer off in to TV-land when something really intrigues me (and in the case of Money & Violence I'm intrigued, conflicted, entertained, & a little embarrassed all at once). While Money & Violence is a lengthy episodic web series, there are some cinematic qualities about it that range from Michael Mann's Heat to Ernest Dickerson's Juice. I totally judged this show before I actually saw it. I admit that. Anyone who knows me well knows that I can be quite critical of modern media & entertainment that concerns black people because I usually don't like the way we're portrayed in a lot of things. I know that may sound a little insecure to some of you but as long as there's shit out there that "makes black people look bad" in the world of entertainment (world star hip-hop videos, urban music on the radio, The Butler, certain aspects of Empire, the cinema of Tyler Perry, etc) I'm going to judge, turn my nose up, or hold black people to a higher standard when it comes to film, television & music.

Knowing that, I'm sure you can imagine a web series about a group of (black) criminals who rob other (black) criminals (which is what Money & Violence is about on the most basic level) would make a guy like me shake my head in disappointment. did. ...At first. Before watching any episodes I went off of word of mouth and assumed Money & Violence was another ratchet web series in the vein of a world star hip-hop viral video (and is it me, or are there a lot of really bad "urban" web shows popping up out of nowhere these days?)
I was even more turned off when I discovered that outlets like Fader magazine & Vice gave the show validation. That's an immediate red flag for me. I think we all know those (mostly white) publications have an offensively fetishized fascination with negative & stereotypical things concerning black people.
But if there's one thing we (black people) shouldn't do is judge something we know nothing about. People have been doing that to us since day one. And who am I to judge a show I've never seen?

It wasn’t until I saw that like-minded socially conscious people (both folks I know personally and folks I admire on social media) gave validation to Money & Violence that I decided to give it a chance (once I saw Killer Mike tweet about how much he loved the show I decided to give it a shot). Validation is important sometimes and this is one of those instances where I needed something to get me to watch what I initially thought was going to be stupid.
I understand why certain people would be extra critical of a show like this, but what makes the violence & criminal activity in Money & Violence any different from Ocean's 11 or Heat? Do you have to look like George Clooney or Robert Deniro in order to be a redeemable criminal? Plus, what sets Money & Violence apart from something like Ocean's 11 is that, believe it or not, M&V doesn’t glorify criminal activity in any way while Danny Ocean and his crew are looked at as cool. After watching Ocean's 11 I jokingly think about if my friends & I could pull off a successful casino heist. At the end of every episode of M&V I thank god I'm not in a position where I have to lead a life of crime. Personally, I think the show should have a different name. It's tough to believe something called Money & Violence doesn’t glorify criminal activity but it honestly doesn’t. If anything, it's a window in to why crime does not always pay. Money & Violence has a lot of prejudgment working against it. Part of this feels like that tired old argument concerning rap music during the late 80's/early 90's. The minute old people or baby boomers heard the words "bitch" or "gun" in a rap song, they automatically assumed every rapper glorified killing & the objectification of women (I always found it amazing when folks who barely listen to rap music suddenly become rap lyric scholars).

I'm also a fan of (some) independent filmmaking and it doesn't get more independent (and grass roots) than this. The creators of M&V didn't just pick up a camera one day and sloppily throw something together. They taught themselves how to become filmmakers through YouTube tutorials, books and trial & error. We love to romanticize self-taught filmmakers so if we're going to praise early John Waters, Miranda July & El Mariachi-era Robert Rodriguez, we have to give props to the creators of Money & Violence too. The entire series utilized only one camera; there was no budget; everything was shot on location in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and the entire cast is made up of (OBVIOUS) non-professional actors. Actually lets just get that aspect of Money & Violence out of the way now...
The acting does leave a lot to be desired (although as the series progresses we do see a lot of the "actors" become more comfortable in front of the camera). With the exception of star/show creator "Moe" and three other supporting cast members, the performances are either stiff & awkward or just overacted.
The acting certainly shouldn’t be overlooked or given a pass simply because the filmmakers were ambitious and pulled off an entire web series with no money (I'm not one of those guys who gives low budget indie films & TV shows a total pass simply because there were limited resources involved. If something is bad I'll call it bad no matter how much heart was put in to a project). But the story structure within M&V is crafted really well. The show has been drawing comparison to The Wire and I think that's fair. Both shows are made up of large interchangeable ensemble casts & inter-weaved storylines that veer off in to intriguing subplots. Say what you want about The Wire (personally I find it a little boring & overrated), but it is crafted quite well. To produce a project on your first try that draws some (worthy) comparison to a show like The Wire is pretty commendable (and not that M&V holds a candle to something like Heat, but there are some legitimate parallels between the show's main character “Rafe” and Deniro's “Neil McCauley”).

Money & Violence centers around "Rafe" and his crew of thieves made up of "Miz", "Shane" & "Kane". They steal from local criminals, gangsters, & drug dealers (always by force) and occasionally get in over their heads (especially in the last half the series). Although this show does sometimes come off like a "how to" on committing crimes (there's a segment in the first half of the series that makes knocking off a bodega seem surprisingly doable), it also preaches the gospel that not everyone is built for a life of crime. The series also touches on the importance of fatherhood.
I found Money & Violence to be incredibly addictive. I approached this show with a wicked side-eye and next thing I knew, I had watched the entire series in the span of one weekend (with the exception of the season finale which came out a few months later). Yes I'm a big fat hypocrite. But that's a testament to how intriguing the show is. It can turn a guy like me in to a semi-believer (I still have yet to see Rafe and his crew take any of the money they steal and put it back in to their community. Maybe we'll see some of that in season two).
Haitian Pride is another major component to this show. Half of the characters are either Haitian-American or Haitian (or some type of Caribbean decent). While I don’t necessarily like seeing Haiti associated with the crime we see on Money & Violence, there’s still a strong sense of Haitian pride that flows throughout the show and you don't see that too much these days (some of the dialogue is spoken in French & Creole).
The respectful portrayal of women (women of color specifically) is an incredibly overlooked quality also. Given this show’s demographic & fanbase, an ignorant/judgy person would easily assume that black women would be shown as “ratchet” or stereotypical in some form. Sure there are some female characters that are truly unlikable and do carry some stereotypical traits (like Kane's ex) but those women do exist at the end of the day and it's important to show both sides of the coin.
It's also good to see a different side of Brooklyn in modern film & television (specifically the Caribbean culture). It's strange - not only has Brooklyn become gentrified in real life, but it's become gentrified within television & film too. Outside of Shaka King's Newlyweeds or Spike Lee's Redhook Summer, most recent Brooklyn-based movies/shows/serials don't really show that many people of color. If there's one thing Brooklyn has it's Black people (along with almost every other race, ethnicity & culture).

If you're willing to keep an open mind (and have an affinity for "urban dramas") this is a compelling series that branches off to various characters and interesting subplots. I'm still incredibly conflicted with this series. I almost don't want to blog about it because there's certain friends & acquaintances that I would never want to recommend this too that may be reading this right now (and I hope you all know who you are). Would I have liked to see the energy & ambition that went in to this web series go in to something else (possibly something a little more positive perhaps)? Sure. But there are some legitimately solid qualities about Money & Violence that shouldn't be written off. 


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