Top Five is the story of Andre Allen, a comedian who is at the precipice of his career and struggling to navigate through a conundrum of celebrity. It’s written and directed by Chris Rock and produced by Jay Z and Kanye West. Played by Chris Rock, Andre is a recovering alcoholic in the 12 step program who is engaged to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who is a reality television star. Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) is assigned to interview Allen for the New York Times, and the film opens up with the two of them strolling down a New York street, conversing about race and politics. Andre points out that whenever something goes wrong in the country, White people point the blame at President Barack Obama. Chelsea shoots back saying that the next president will be a woman, a Latina, a lesbian, and then America may even have another disabled president. Andre steps off the sidewalk into the middle of the street to further illustrate his point that America is still a country plagued by racism. He holds up his hand to hail a cab thinking that because he is a Black man no cabbie will stop. To his dismay and embarrassment, the second cab that sees him screeches to a halt-an ironic nod at the current place of race relations in America fraught with continuous advances and regressions.
Andre finds his status as a comedian in serious jeopardy. On one hand, his star is rising in the public’s eye thanks to a string of commercially successful movies in which he plays a character called Hammy. Hammy is a police officer who just so happens to be a bear. Dressed in a bear costume and looking like Kanye West’s mascot on The College Dropout album cover, Andre as Hammy is a super cop of the order of Action Jackson. Fans everywhere love Hammy. Yet Andre knows that these sorts of blockbuster movies he continues to make aren’t fooling his most ardent fans, who’ve been following him since his days of doing standup comedy in clubs. Andre also has a new movie he is promoting called Uprize about the Haitian Revolution. Chelsea underscores what Andre already knows when she asks him why he isn’t funny anymore. Andre responds by acknowledging that people want him to be funny like he was when he first started doing comedy. When he first started making people laugh, he did it high on drugs and booze. Now sobriety has taken a toll on his ability to connect with his audience. Or so he thinks. It will take a fairy tale ending, replete with princes and princesses, to erase the curse of addiction and restore Andre’s confidence to once again be the comedian that everyone first fell in love with on stage.
In essence, Top Five is an amoebic romcom that at once pays homage to Hip Hop (think Brown Sugar), takes you on a behind the scenes tour of a comedian’s private life (think Funny People), and does so with perhaps the most star-studded cast of budding and legendary Black comedians since Harlem Nights. Richard Pryor isn’t there. Eddie Murphy isn’t there. But Chris Rock is there, and he brilliantly sums up their importance to the pantheon of Black comedy, calling Pryor the most honest comic to ever grace the stage, and ranking Murphy’s performance on stage as being more exciting than Michael Jackson’s. Add to the mix, fellow past and present Saturday Night Live cast members Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che and Leslie Jones, along with Cedric the Entertainer, Bruce Bruce, Kevin Hart, Romany Malco, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove, Ben Vereen, and the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg, and you come as close to comedy bliss in the 21st century as is possible.
Even though Top Five doesn’t reach the ascent of Harlem Nights, say in scenes like the one where Della Reese and Eddie Murphy square off in the back alley, or when Redd Foxx and Della Reese compete for curmudgeon of the year, it does successfully remix it. Chris Rock graciously hands the mic to his would-be SNL successors and allows them and the others to freestyle. What happens next is something special, only able to be captured on film once in a while, when comedians are given the opportunity to improvise. You definitely get the feeling that they are heavily riffing, and spitting from the top of their domes.
The topic of conversation revolves around the question: Who’s in your top five? Hence the title, meaning which rappers are in your top five list. Now anyone who has ever been asked that question in a room full of Hip Hop heads knows that depending on who is listening, the rappers you place in your top five list could spark a heated debate. Sometimes no one will have a problem with who you placed in your top five list, but rather take exception to the order in which you’ve ranked them. Or someone may reject a specific rapper you’ve dared so courageously to defend as worthy of a top five ranking. Either way, you’ve got to be prepared to defend your guys or gals that you put in the list. Watching Rock, Jones, Pharoah and Morgan get into this discussion is like being invited into their home, into their living room for dinner. Even Jerry Seinfeld, of all people, gets in the cypher and gives his top five. Now I’ve seen and heard it all!
If who’s in your top five reveals anything about your true character, Rosario Dawson leaves the most impassioned impression of one’s love for Hip Hop since Sanaa Lathan in Brown Sugar. Chelsea defiantly shouts her top five to Andre when he asks her who is on her list. The performance comes off as something of a rallying cry for the current state of Hip Hop and its future. If the last 30 plus years have taught us anything, it’s that Hip Hop isn’t going anywhere. As the generations come and go, as in the world of comedy, there will be both stalwarts and neophytes included in top five lists. No matter your age, sex, race or geographical origin, the only thing that truly matters is who’s in your top five. Here’s my top five: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Nas, Tariq Trotter (Black Thought), and Common.
So, who’s in your top five?