Photos by Shayan Asgharnia for Okayplayer (except where noted)
Go back and look at the cover of your copy of Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m.A.A.d city. Now, look at the inscription on the bottom. It reads:
“gOOD KID MAAD CITY
A SHORT FILM
The album that was made to be consumed as a cinematic experience now has the visual counterpart it demands. Saturday night, the Kendrick-commissioned, Kahlil Joseph-directed, Flying Lotus-scored short film m.A.A.d. premiered at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, as part of the Sundance Institute NextFest.
As in at least two of Joseph’s offerings, South Central Los Angeles is backdrop and main character for his peculiar brand of cinematic production. m.A.A.d. carries on many themes that are recognizable in his past work: the film is a dreamlike sequence, featuring alternating extended shots interspersed with frenetic, rapid fire bursts of portraits of black life in America (here, vignettes of everyday people around Compton, clips of lynchings and police brutality, and actual home footage from Kendrick’s childhood) and audio experimentation (such as rotating vocals and the juxtaposition of silence vs. extreme volume). Images of lynching and state-sponsored violence grow increasingly poignant, conjuring up contemporary scenes of the police officers and their dogs that have been facing off against Mike Brown supporters in Ferguson, Missouri this week.
Like most of Joseph’s creations up to this point, m.A.A.d. can be read as a 21st century imagining of Sun Ra‘s Space Is The Place. “Equation wise, the first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended. We work on the other side of time,” Sun Ra says on the intro to his career-defining film. Joseph’s work exists in a universe with similar laws.
Some of the rare moments of discernible dialogue occur when we hear, “Go get the pump!” in a neighborhood scene, shot in the same style as the actual home video used in the film. The time stamp on the home videos are “3/23/92 10:03” and, later, “3/27/92” (these dates appear to represent a sort of singularity or turning point both within the film and Kendrick’s life–more on that below) Moments after someone screams for the pump, a shooting occurs and then a quote from the late Amiri Baraka appears on the screen, “We used to know we were stronger than the devil.” We’re then thrust into the van (the van) as then-prince Kendrick and his friends prepare for a joyride through Compton. But just as we get buckled in, we hear “Poetic Justice” (the film version was also set in South Central and directed by John Singleton) and are brought to a horse stable in the middle of Compton.
Horses are a common theme in Joseph’s work, as is water (specifically underwater shots) used here as well. Also peppered throughout m.A.A.d. are vampire-like characters hanging upside down from street lights and corner stores. (Joseph has flipped elements of tima and space in his pieces before, but this marks the first time he’s used upside down characters).
And as for that time stamp: 3/23/92: On March 23rd of 1992, TIME magazine cover featured Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas, then both vying for the Democratic nomination in that year’s election. Within that issue, there is a profile on another nominee: John Singleton. Singleton’s depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles, Boyz N The Hood, was up for two Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay). 20 years later, it is young Lamar who guides us through life in this mad city. Not surprisingly, m.A.A.d. is another in Kahlil Joseph’s growing list of stellar short films. We can only wonder what he’d do with a feature film.