Review: Neil Drumming Makes Good on His “Big Words”

“You find your beat?” someone asks near the end of “Big Words,” referring to a sample that her husband has spent all day looking for. He didn’t, nor have his former partners in a late ’90s De La Soul-esque hip hop group that’s run last all of “two singles, a crappy music video and an album that never came out.” However, the same can’t be said of writer/director Neil Drumming’s casually poignant debut, which follows the former trio’s separate paths on the day of the 2008 presidential election when an African-American may have ascended to the highest office in the land yet it’s of little import to those just trying to get by.

“Just another day,” as James (Gbenga Akinnagbe) tells Ben (Zachary Booth), an enthusiastic caucausian writer, who’s come to pitch him a book even in spite of his misapprehension that “he’s got a lot going on today” because of Obama. Although John does have plans in the evening to acknowledge the historic occasion by joining others at an election party, it ranks only slightly higher in significance than the project Ben is pitching him – a tome about his father, a record producer who started the rap label where John and the other two members of the DLP, as they were known back in the day, were signed.

As it turns out, he’s not alone in having to think about the group for the first time in years. John (Dorian Missick), who currently makes ends meet by serving as an IT consultant, finds himself bringing it up now that his girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) has ambitions to become a singer, and Malik (Darien Sills-Evans), the only one who still makes music, goes in search of a loop he created with the group, convinced it’s been ripped off by another turntablist.

Though the setup is clearly there for the three to reunite on the mic at the end, “Big Words” has wildly different ideas, not content to give in to easy satisfaction for the audience when it spends its duration examine why satisfaction has eluded its characters in their lives in general. However, it is a pleasure to be in their company, thanks to a collection of nuanced performances from its ensemble who make the most out of fully fleshed out characters who feel as though they’ve really lived and we’ve only just been dropped into their lives for a moment.

While we’re only left to imagine who they once were, the central trio of Missick, Akinnagbe and Sills-Evans all build upon having just enough backstory to give their present situation meaning, displaying a glimmer in their eye that been dulled by the responsibilities of adulthood. Still, they’re not dead yet, as demonstrated, if nothing else, by how Drumming slyly peppers their speech with clever cultural references that no doubt were informed by the director’s time as a writer for Entertainment Weekly.

However, what’s more impressive is how “Big Words” slips in major ideas about middle age, work, race, and gender politics into its narrative with ease. Having once been fueled as artists by their experience as one kind of minority, the trio fear becoming one in a youth culture, making the trip down memory lane one they’d prefer not to take. Yet it’s one worth taking for everybody else.

“Big Words” opens on July 19th in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent before touring across the country. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.

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