Jails Hospitals & Hip-Hop

2001, Movie, R, 88 mins


The very talented urban monologist Danny Hoch and his co-director, Mark Benjamin, bring Hoch's celebrated one-man, multi-character theater piece Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop to the screen with a few cinematic tricks. But the spotlight remains exactly where it should be: On Hoch and his incisive material. His characters run the gamut of types and ethnicities, but they're all essentially linked by the street, either to life as it's lived there or the culture it spawns. An unlicensed New York City vendor who's sent to prison for selling Simpsons T-shirts — Bart and O.J. — without a license; a dangerously stressed-out corrections officer who's ordered to undergo counseling after badly beating an inmate; Flip, a lily white Montana farm boy/rapper who insists he's really black (a character Hoch expanded into the 1999 feature film WHITEBOYS); a tourist-hassling, rap-obsessed Cuban street peddler (Hoch's biggest stretch, but the film's least interesting piece); and MC Enuff, a veteran rapper who makes an appearance on David Letterman to discuss the evolution of rap and plug his new record, "Where's the Joy?" Hoch's most fully realized character is also his angriest — an HIV+ inmate who pushes a broom while railing against the lack of decent services available to prisoners — but the most satisfying moment in the film belongs to Hoch playing himself. He delivers a short bit based on his real-life experience reading for an appearance on Seinfeld, and rightfully calls the much-loved show on its portrayal of ethnic stereotypes. The film regularly crosscuts between several very different performances of the same material: on location for the camera, on a sparsely decorated stage in front of a live audience and, most interestingly, behind the gates of New York's Rikers Island correctional facility for a group of prisoners (a familiar setting for Hoch, who spent five years teaching drama to Rikers' inmates). Hoch may be a white Jewish kid from Queens, but he grew up on the streets of one of the borough's not-so-nice neighborhoods, and his dialogue and delivery sound like the real thing. Like Anna-Devere Smith, another monologist with the uncanny ability to capture the essence of characters radically different from herself, Hoch's considerable skill speaks to an extraordinary empathy and a willingness to understand where even the toughest customer is coming from. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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