50 Documentaries to See Before You Die

Style Wars (1983)

Director: Tony Silver, Henry Chalfant

Style Wars manages to communicate the essence of hip-hop music without focusing on the music itself. Instead, the film sets its sights on graffiti and break-dancing, centering on how the evolution of these expressions became vital to the vibrant roots of hip-hop culture spreading across the streets of New York in the late '70s and early '80s. Style Wars,which originally aired on PBS in 1983, follows several street artists, notably one-armed graffiti writer Kase 2, who is famous for his signature form of wild style called "computer rock" as much as for his boundless devotion to expressing his art.

If he was writing in his room, this wouldn't be the film it was; instead, we have an educational-sounding voice-over (this is PBS, remember?) describing the great risks he took to write on subway cars, and gorgeous visuals of graffiti-enveloped trains weaving throughout NYC. Kase 2's art is not just about aesthetics any more than Rock Steady's devotion to breaking is just about physical movement. It's about capturing a certain spirit, expressing something otherwise inexpressible, and ultimately making something your own. And that's all hip-hop really is, at it's heart, isn't it?

A film like this is not without accolades: Style Wars was awarded the Grand Jury Prize in documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, and is widely viewed as a indelible declaration of hip-hop's commitment to originality at a fundamental time of its development. Shanté Cosme

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