August (Khalil Everage) hasn’t left the house in 18 months, not since his sister was gunned down in front of him. Now he’s suffering from crippling PTSD, living the hermit life, which his mother (Uzo Aduba) isn’t too mad about. They clearly love and care for each other, but they’re both so broken they can’t heal each other. August retreats into his music, creating beats, safe under his world-cancelling headphones.
But then one day his school’s security guard Romello (Anthony Anderson) comes looking for him. Coincidentally (or not), he’s a washed up manager with one big ex-client and a whole lot of baggage, including an estranged wife for a current boss, who expects him to bring back truant students so her school’s funding doesn’t get cut. But instead of bringing August back to school, Romello wants to bring him into a studio. He hears gold records, and a chance to get back on top. But that’s going to be extra challenging when your 17 year old prodigy producer is a recluse with mental health problems.
In Chicago, hip hop and gun violence intermingle, but in Chris Robinson’s movie about both, it’s fear that reigns the day. It feels trite to talk about the ‘healing power of music’ but it’s clear that for August, his music is a retreat, and a balm. But as good as his beats are (and they do hold up thanks to some authentic Chicago talent), it’s going to take more than that to get August back on his feet, and to make this movie better than average.
So is it? Better than average? I’m going to say yes. It’s not super profound but for all its simplicity, it does really speak to a particular brand of tragedy. It’s a painful testimony to all the victims in Chicago’s south side and beyond. August’s story isn’t particularly noteworthy in his community. Everyone has suffered loss. Everyone risks their lives just walking home at night. We really understand how something so horrific can come to feel normal to people who live it every day. It’s only through August’s mother’s eyes that we remember how crazy this is. She is willing to sacrifice everything, to keep her son locked up at home, if that’s what it takes for him to live to his 18th birthday. Uzo Aduba is of course wonderful, her presence strong. And Khalil Everage also makes a strong impression on his first time out.
Netflix dropped Beats today, perhaps in honour of Juneteenth. Also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, it’s a national day of observance that commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, and in fact the emancipation of enslaved African Americans throughout the confederate states. The Emancipation Proclamation was of course enacted as of January 1, 1863, but Texas was quite remote, and the proclamation was not enforced until after the confederacy collapsed.
While it’s certainly worth celebrating, this movie is perhaps a good way to think about the modern manifestations of slavery, and the ways we may be withholding true liberation, inadvertently or not.
Beats has a strong sound and a good message. It’s not solving the gun violence in America, but it shows us how to have courage even when things look hopeless.