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At 20, “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” is a film like no other

Carmen: A Hip-Hopera Anniversary

Robert Townsend’s modernized MTV adaptation of the famous opera is a compelling movie and a fascinating picture of pop culture in 2001.

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The best way to enjoy MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera is with the subtitles on. That way you can catch every outrageous word of Sekani Williams’ singular lyrics. 20 years after its release in 2001, Carmen: A Hip Hopera remains unique, in a genre all its own.

Returning to it now, Carmen is so clearly a crossroads, one pulling in many different directions. It is a vibrant mix of styles, trends, discourses, and ideologies that need not necessarily come together. If we take a macro perspective, the crossroads becomes the thing rather than the problem. Because while this pulling does result in some uneven tension where time seems to drag on or snap together quickly, it’s not without its causes and functions. If some of Carmen: A Hip Hopera grates, it’s because the film rubs against multiple cultural tectonic plates at once.

This version of the 1875 french opera by Georges Bizet is more or less an adaptation of the 1954 adaptation, Carmen Jones, starring Dorthory Danderidge, but the plot is essentially the same. The seductive heartbreaker Carmen breaks the wrong heart in a love triangle which leads to both his and her downfall.

Carmen: A Hip Hopera transplants the original Spanish setting of Bizet’s opera to Philadelphia and LA. Carmen (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) is a desperate performer trying to make it big in the business, but along her climb she crosses paths with the already-engaged Sargent Derek Hill (Mekhi Phifer) and both their fates are sealed.

Carmen: A Hip Hopera
MTV

Pursued by dirty cop Lieutenant Miller (Yasiin Bey) and ex-fiance Caela (Reagan Gomez-Preston), Hil ends up in jail where he has a lot of time to think out loud of his cellmates (Bow Wow and Jermaine Dupree) about how much he misses Carmen. Poor Mekhi Phifer. He couldn’t trust any classically-based women in 2001, moving on from Carmen directly to Des(demona) in O.

While Hill’s in jail Carmen starts strategizing their move to LA so she can pursue her dreams. She and her girlfriends Rasheeda (Rah Digga) and Nikki (Joy Bryant) have been hanging around Blaze (Casey Lee), a young hot rapper willing to bankroll her out there. But when Hill is still on probation after he gets out, circumstances force the pair to flee to LA.

But the pair’s dreams quickly crash once they get there. As Carmen finds her heart moving on after the couple grow restless because neither of them can find work. Hill because of his record, Carmen because she’s “not “urban” enough.” Though she’s finding love and success at last, she’s plagued by ominous signs pointing to her impending doom. And when her past steps in front of her future, she’s shot in the back when Miller was aiming for Hill. She dies the red rose lopped off in her prime.

If some of Carmen: A Hip Hopera grates, it’s because the film rubs against multiple cultural tectonic plates at once.

Perhaps the most astute and helpful response to Carmen: A Hip Hopera comes from opera scholar Naomi André in a chapter from her momentous Black Opera: History, Power, and Engagement (University of Illinois Press, 2018). In this chapter, Professor André charts the history of Carmen from the nineteenth century to twentieth century Black America and South Africa. It’s a fascinating mapping of how Carmen as a character has simultaneously grown to be more independent yet a part of the audience’s community, losing her foreignness in favor of gaining her own goals.

Professor André’s ideas about the importance of Carmen: A Hip Hopera are also useful answers for why the film affects people as it does. Her points about the boundaries director Robert Townsend chooses to push explain many of the negative critiques lobbed at the film. In doing so, they model a kind of good faith criticism which helps us see Carmen: A Hip Hopera as a worthwhile thought experiment rather than some cringe attempt to make the canon cool.

You always acknowledge royalty first upon entering a room, so we will start with Queen Bey herself. This is Beyoncé’s first film appearance, but it could also be argued this is the first appearance of “Yoncé” as well. Carmen Brown allows Beyoncé to show off a range of skills that she will blossom into later in her career, including a sensual yet strongly self-possessed sexuality. But unlike the original Carmen, there’s more to Beyoncé’s Carmen than just this sexuality specifically because of the qualities Beyonce brings to performances.

As André writes, “Carmen Brown’s entrance…is smoldering hot with lust and desire wrapped together. Yet throughout the film we see other images of Carmen Brown as she hangs out with her friends…[she] sometimes appears almost shy, certainly less outgoing than her friends.” This is because Beyoncé, as an actress (and I suspect as a person) is very private, refined, and/or innocent at times.

While critics may suggest this is a bad thing, in the context of Carmen, this kind of reserved interiority is revolutionary because it gives Carmen more human dynamics to her emotions. “She is a Carmen whose sexiness has lost its threat and has become desirable…as a feature to possess or to emulate.” Unlike the original Carmen who feels dangerous because of her otherness, Carmen Jones, largely in part to Beyoncé’s humble presence on screen, feels like someone people are likely to know or bump into on the street.

And this unique quality of vulnerability that Beyoncé brings is what makes Carmen getting shot in the back work emotionally. As André summarizes, “with the complementary story of crime in [B]lack neighborhoods and police corruption, Carmen Brown becomes a pawn in a larger narrative. While she is still a character who stands for young black millennial female-gendered power, she also becomes a symbol for the innocent caught in the crossfire.”

The proximity to Carmen which is new to Townsend’s version tries to make Carmen’s death hit differently by placing it within a larger structural frame and less on Carmen for being a “loose woman”. Yes, it’s messy but more importantly, it’s a commendable attempt to add some updated humanism to a work with centuries old morals.

Prof. André puts it like this, “Carmen Brown…is a more modern woman who lives in a different time. She is a liberated Carmen and has other options available that include a career and access to financial gain. This is a Carmen who has dreams — aspirations…Here is a Carmen who has fully embraced the late twentieth-century dream of capitalism and the pursuit of fame.” She is “allowed to be motivated by her dream for stardom and fame.”

And this embracing or allowing is fully celebrated by Robert Townsend’s kaleidoscopic visual storytelling. He embraces music video frenetic and highly commercial aesthetics to compose the film though multiple jump cuts, presenting multiple perspectives in one, and a delicious use of green screenery. The most memorable and defining example of this being the song in which Carmen’s girlfriends try to convince her to move on from Hill. It may be too much for some, but to me these totally extra aesthetics help brand the film as truly MTV’s Carmen.

Most negative responses to this film are about its unevenness, but they rarely consider the bigger picture to understand why the unevenness exists or what it might be working towards. To me, this confusion of pace and duration comes from Townsend taking on what André calls, “the provocative question of whether hip hop can be extended to the longer form of an operatic scale.”

The pacing is odd because Townsend is trying to stretch the form. But it also feels off because the audience watching the show may not have operatic scale in mind when they watch MTV’s Carmen. MTV primed an audience to appreciate short and contained musical features, which means their audience would not be accustomed to having the musical scenes flow almost nonstop for 2-hours, including commercials.

And if things feel like they move along without much character development, Townsend isn’t to bear full responsibility. Because when you dial in on just an operas plot and/or structure, there’s often not a lot there. Carmen’s plot is simple because it tells grand things, it explores interior richness through song. If the goal was to repeat that, Townsend certainly succeeds.

2001’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera captures a lot of cultural shifts happening at once. It marks MTV’s transition out of music programming into other ventures, the rise of hip hop to a place of dominance in the music industry, the saturation of commercial aesthetics in everyday life, and the post-modern fascination with blending classical and new styles. (The “Survivor” strings being a memorable example.)

Robert Townsend managed to produce a remarkably visionary project whose boundary pushing may leave some critics feeling unsure or uncomfortable but it’s not without reason. It’s exciting to watch an attempt to make an opera that has seen Do The RIght Thing and Hillstreet Blues and has a point to make about “cops [being] more criminal than the criminals.”

Carmen: A Hip Hopera remains fun and fascinating to watch because of its intelligent direction and heartfelt performances at its core. Yes, it hurts to see Carmen gunned down before she can attain her dreams of being a mogul. But we can rest content relishing in the knowledge that though Carmen Brown doesn’t make it, Beyoncé surely does.

Carmen: A Hip Hopera Trailer

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