It doesn’t matter how austere and confident you are when it comes to answering “The Question:” who’s in your top five? As a hip-hop fan and black American, you’ll be coaxed into arguments, philosophical sparring or general jive talk thanks to that one topic. It just comes with the territory. Chris Rock’s third movie, Top Five, finds him finally realizing the key to creating a great film — Rock just being himself. As hip-hop’s greatest comedian, it makes sense that the Top Five question plays a central motif in the film.
Rock laid it out in one of the best press runs in recent memory: Top Five is about Black fame. It’s a Black cultural thing, and that sense of communal obligation gets amplified when fame is involved because there are so few representatives within the mainstream sphere. There’s a point in the film where Rock’s character Andre Allen screws up, and Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) acts at “the Black community” stand-in. “How can you do this to me?” she says. It sort of rings close to if the real Chris Rock got caught up in a scandal — “us” standing in for “me.”
Long is only a temporary stand-in, though. She plays the magnet that pulls Rock toward the Black community’s cardinal sin: not keeping it real. It’s an irony since this is the movie that’s closest to Rock’s stand-up ethos, including his unwavering sharpness, his crap-eating facial gestures, and his brand of crass as a means to an end. The big flaw is the predictable romance of the third act that gradually dries the satire and conversationalist fluidity.
This certainly isn’t a fatal flaw, though, especially since romance doesn’t make up the entire focus of the movie. Top Five floats with its sense of interconnectivity, from filmmaking mechanics — actors’ chemistry (Rock and Rosario Dawson’s New York Times reporter shine) and cinematography — and in regards to the film’s fictional universe. This includes even isolated incidents played up for laughs, like the Wet Spot Incident in Houston. That thread of connection speaks to the concept of the movie’s title. What oversees the arguments over the Top Five — whether we’re talking Ghostface Killah, Rakim, LL Cool J or Public Enemy — is that oneness shared within the discourse over a shared passion.
Even though there are far more emotionally weighty and raunchier scenes, that sequence featuring Allen’s old friends — who happen to be the likes of Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan and Michael Che — in an apartment trading jabs over the Top Five and an optional sixth works as the symbolic crux of the movie’s thesis. Of course, they all differ; no one in the film (or in real life) thinks LL Cool J is a reasonable sixth. It’s not just about the rappers per se, though. The comedians play on-screen characters, but there’s this transparency permeating through the scene that reveals you’re still watching part of a larger community— the Black comic community in this case. It’s apparent as the scene flows from joking on fat-ass Fred to guffawing at the LL reference. It’s as funny as it is realistic. Allen is in on this group even though he’s now in a different tax bracket, just as you’re in on the jokes and jabs — a silent witness. You’re sort of on Jones’ character side as she gives her parting words to Allen: “Stay black n***a. Keep it 100.”
And it’s a sense of obligation that trails along Black celebrity, not just because of default-by-minority, but also because of that common link — whether perceived by the public or acknowledged by the celebrity — that the Top Five represents. The question pops up throughout the movie as a reminder of that bond and commitment to it. In other words: keeping it real.
Brian Josephs’ Top Five is Andre 3000, Ghostface Killah, Eminem, Jay Z and Nas — in no particular order. He tweets here.