True to the Game

true-to-the-game-rev True to the Game  (2017)    Imani/Drama    RT: 108 minutes    Rated R (violence, drug content, sexuality, nudity, pervasive language)    Director: Preston A. Whitmore II    Screenplay: Nia Hill    Music: Chris Paultre    Cinematography: Matt Wise    Release date: September 8, 2017 (US)    Cast: Columbus Short, Erica Peeples, Starletta DuPois, Nelsan Ellis, Nafessa Williams, Andra Fuller, Misan Akuya, Annika Noelle, Jamaar Simon, Malcolm David Kelly, Draya Michele, Lorenzo Eduardo, Vivica A. Fox, Jennifer Freeman, Iyana Halley, Lisa Pitts, Paul Saucido.  

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 The crime drama-romance True to the Game came out with virtually no advance notice. I saw a poster for it at a theater I only go to once in a while. When I saw that my local multiplex booked it, I had a hard time getting any information on it. It’s based on a popular book by Philadelphia’s own Teri Woods who wrote it while working at a law firm. After being rejected by numerous publishers, she used her own money to have copies printed and hand-sold them to booksellers in the Philly area and later, across the US. She eventually opened her own publishing house, Teri Woods Publishing, which specializes in the urban fiction genre and targets the largely ignored black demographic.

 True-To-The-GameGoing in, I knew this about True to the Game; it’s a love story between a drug kingpin and a college student from the hood. Movies have been founded on slimmer premises. One of the big differences between the book and movie (as I learned from a fellow audience member) is the time setting. The book takes place in the 80s; the movie is set in present-day. I think they would have been better off keeping it in the 80s. Set (and shot) in Philadelphia, its two main characters are Quadir (Short, TV’s Scandal), a drug kingpin looking to exit the life and Gena (Peeples), a college student with dreams of being a writer. They meet at a club where she witnesses a couple of rival drug dealers gun somebody down. Gena knows in her mind that getting involved with Quadir is a mistake but her heart says something different. Guess which organ trumps the other.

 True to the Game is also a gangsta flick. Before he can leave the life behind for good, Quadir must deal with a pair of thuggish brothers, Jerrell (Fuller, TV’s Black Jesus) and Terrance (Akuya), trying to take over by force. There are plenty of drive-by and run-by shootings. Eventually, it affects the movie’s central relationship when somebody close to Gena gets killed in a shooting. When that happens, she briefly goes into Janet Jackson mode (from Poetic Justice). Julia Roberts’ character from Pretty Woman gets a nod in a scene where Gena deals with a snooty (white) clerk at a Beverly Hills boutique.

 While interesting, True to the Game suffers from the amateurish way in which it’s executed. It lacks the polish and refinement of a Hollywood-made movie. It’s directed by Preston A. Whitmore II who helmed the underrated 1995 Vietnam War drama The Walking Dead (no zombies in that one!). The screenplay is by Nia Hill who works primarily in TV. The performances are a mixed bag ranging from good to not-so-good. On the good side is Starletta DuPois (Hollywood Shuffle) as Gena’s grandmother Gah-Git, a church-going sage who at one point tells Gena that God says “to get her s--t together”. Nelsan Ellis (in his final role) is also good as Quadir’s brother Tyrik, an all-business type set to take his spot as leader of the crew. The two leads, Short and Peeples, do a decent job but hardly an exceptional one. At least what chemistry they have doesn’t feel forced.

 The biggest name in True to the Game is Vivica A. Fox who plays Quadir’s good-for-nothing mother. I remember when she played hot roles like Independence Day, Booty Call and Kill Bill. It was cool seeing familiar Philadelphia locations throughout the movie. The street and club scenes have a gritty, realistic feel. The rap and hip-hop soundtrack is loud and sometimes intrusive but it fits the movie’s vibe quite well. Certain plot elements, like a kidnapping for ransom, feel rather contrived. The good thing is that True to the Game is never boring. It held my interest throughout. It’s not a great movie by any means but it’s not a bad one either. Fans of the book will probably wish it was better but that’s common for any movie adapted from a popular novel. 

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