The Harlem Streets As Told By Damon Dash
While it deals in well-worn street cliches, Honor Up provides a critical window of insight into its infamous director. Hip-Hop Mogul Damon Dash, who co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records with Jay-Z nearly 20 years ago, makes his directorial debut with this gritty Harlem hood opus.
Written, directed and produced by Damon Dash as some kind of personal project he always wanted made, Honor Up is for the audience that already know names like the rapper Cam’ron and have some idea of Dash’s one-time position within the Hip-Hop industry. It is a violent gangsta tale set on the mean streets of Harlem and intended as some sort of personal instruction set for aspiring hustlers in the game.
Honor Up has one foot set firmly in the past with its gritty, street-wise ethos. It would have felt more appropriate for the times twenty years ago, when Dash was still a young and upcoming entrepreneur working his way through the music and fashion industry. Despite having dabbled in films aimed at Hip-Hop audiences, Hollywood never fully embraced the street-life so vividly referenced in the gangsta rap music of the 1990s. Honor Up looks to correct that with Dash’s very personal film, heavily influenced by his life experiences growing up on the streets and in the game.
If any movie can be called street, it is Honor Up. Featuring a number of rappers and Damon Dash’s associates, the film revels in the violent code of the streets and how to survive. The narrative doesn’t pull its punches. This isn’t fantasy where the characters face no consequences. The movie does have a jaded, often wary view of life on the street for its characters. It’s a world where the racist cops (one played by Nick Turturro) will do anything to put criminals behind bars, including breaking the law. Friends end up as snitches when faced with serious jail time.
The movie does have a jaded, often wary view of life on the street
The movie does have a jaded, often wary view of life on the street
Damon Dash himself stars as OG, a grizzled drug lord’s savvy lieutenant struggling to maintain a code of twisted street honor entrusted to him. OG has to protect the loose family of hustlers and drug dealers at all costs, maintaining order within his unruly crew after a blazing Harlem shootout.
Given Dash’s inexperience as a filmmaker, Honor Up is rough around the edges. What the movie lacks in refined storytelling, it makes up in sheer grit and authenticity. This is a raw, unvarnished peek into the inner social dynamics of a street hustler and the consequences of running in this crowd. The drugs, cars, money and fast women are all included. Honor Up delights in the usual gangster trappings, though Dash’s seemingly endless voice-over narration includes his character’s view on this life and its pitfalls. But it is also unafraid to explore problems in Harlem that rarely get addressed, including crackheads and prostitutes.
Honor Up is something out of left field as a movie. It’s not a conventionally good movie if you judge it by the fairly generic plotting and unrefined direction. Even if you’ve grown up on movies like Menace II Society, Honor Up is a much rawer movie without the Hollywood spit-shine. Damon Dash set out to make a convincing pseudo-documentary of his life experiences and background. I think he succeeded. This is as real to the streets as you will probably see released by a Hollywood studio. It’s not always entertaining, as the action often ends up predictable and less than compelling. But the cast is surprisingly good in their roles, particularly Daniel Jenkins as Primo, the experienced head of the gang.
Older Hip-Hop heads and other fans of rugged street life will find something to like about Honor Up. It is not going to change your life but there are enough memorable moments to keep one’s interest for 84-minutes.
Honor Up has a vaguely unique aesthetic for what is ostensibly a movie from the streets. Some scenes employ the high-speed Phantom digital camera, often used in slow-motion replays seen in sports. Make no mistake, Honor Up is an independently financed project made outside the studio system. Black levels vary and shadow detail is swallowed up in the darker scenes.
The RED digital cinematography lacks the razor-sharp polish and finish you’ll get from a studio production. Some exteriors have vivid life, while others are missing that extra definition common to new RED-produced films. I believe a certain tone was aimed for in Honor Up that led to the reduced color saturation and limited detail.
Black levels are more milky than anything else. The 1080P video has decent clarity, occasionally hampered by high ISO noise and a flat contrast. Honor Up is a film that a few years ago would have been shot on 35mm film and fit the movie’s tone better. There’s a pivotal card game in the movie that lacks gravitas with its washed-out colors and spotty detail. It’s a moment that showcases Dash’s inexperience as a director.
The 84-minute main feature is encoded in adequate AVC on a BD-25. Glimpses of banding and chroma noise intrude into the 1080P video. The 2.35:1 presentation feels extremely tight in composition and framing, preferring close-ups in almost all shots. This is a serviceable job that replicates the movie’s REDCODE RAW digital intermediate without serious harm. There is nothing egregiously wrong in the transfer that can’t be laid at the feet of the source material’s erratic cinematography.
Honor Up is carefully constructed around a mix of original and older Hip-Hop tracks as the basis of its soundtrack. Songs from names such as Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan are included. Moving into cliché territory a bit, Dash shows a tendency to orchestrate his gritty set pieces with opera music.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a reasonably aggressive mix suited for discrete sound. The violent movie has its fair share of shootouts and gun blasts, resulting in crisp bass and extension. The audio design and surround mix aren’t demo material. This is standard meat-and-potatoes surround fare for an indie production.
I would recommend engaging dialogue normalization on your receiver if possible. The mix has too much dynamic range and some dialogue is drowned out in the quieter scenes, if you are listening at normal volumes.
Optional English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are all included. They play in a white font that remain inside the scope presentation at all times.
Lionsgate gives us one of the most amusing and off-the-cuff commentaries ever put out by a major Hollywood studio. This Blu-ray edition also includes an UltraViolet digital copy, which redeems in HDX on VUDU. There isn’t much else included for bonus features. A glossy slipcover with embossed lettering is available on first pressings.
Honor Up Theatrical Trailer (01:37 in HD)
Lionsgate Trailers (08:37 in HD) – The following trailers are available from the menu and also play before the main menu: Love Beats Rhymes, Cops and Robbers, Rise of the Footsoldier 2, Extortion, and Altitude.
Audio Commentary With Writer/Director/Producer Damon Dash and Producer/Actress Raquel M. Horn – One of the most personally revealing commentaries ever included in a major studio release. Honor Up is a personal film by Damon Dash, laying out his personal life philosophies for a broader audience. He explains how he wanted an authentic film representing his background. The Hip-Hop mogul explains what went on behind the scenes, admitting he was high while filming the entire movie. He is apparently in a relationship with the other person on this commentary, Raquel Horn. This is one of those commentaries more entertaining than the film itself.
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