Con­fronting Jonah Hill’s Mid90s

Jonah Hill talks skater boyz, hip-hop and other parts of his Mid90s youth


MID90S writ­ten and di­rected by Jonah Hill with Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges and Na-Kel Smith. 84 min­utes. A VVS Films re­lease. Opens Fri­day (Oc­to­ber 26). For venues and times, see Movies, page 34.

In an in­ter­view last year, I broached Lena Waithe about the con­trast be­tween her and Greta Ger­wig, both be­ing artists who tap into their own ex­pe­ri­ence and cul­ture in their work.

“Yes, it’s lily white,” said Waithe about Ger­wig’s cel­e­brated com­ing-ofager Lady Bird. “Of course. But that’s Greta’s aes­thetic. And I think that’s fair. My aes­thetic is very Black. The Chi (Waithe’s TV se­ries) is Black. Thanks­giv­ing (Waithe’s Emmy-win­ning Mas­ter Of None episode) is Black.”

I bring this up now be­cause it gets more com­pli­cated when pre­scrib­ing a colour to Jonah Hill’s aes­thetic. The Su­per­bad star’s Mid90s, his own Lady Bird-like com­ing-of-ager, opens in the­atres this week­end.

But while Ger­wig’s white aes­thetic fea­tured vin­tage dresses and the Dave Matthews Band on the sound­track, Hill’s is baggy jeans and sounds from A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang. He’s still got a white aes­thetic (I think), but with deep af­fec­tion for Black cul­ture. Again that’s to­tally fair.

The ac­tor turned writer and di­rec­tor spins a story about a 13-year-old (Sunny Suljic) from a sin­gle-mom, low-in­come house­hold who spends his days loi­ter­ing with skater boyz with an eclec­tic se­lec­tion of pe­riod-spe­cific hip-hop tunes on the sound­track. It’s a slight, charm­ing and reg­u­larly hi­lar­i­ous slice of life take on be­ing young and im­pres­sion­able that Hill also de­scribes as a love let­ter to hip-hop and skater cul­ture,

two things he says are deeply em­bed­ded in his DNA.

“Skate­board­ing and hip-hop are of­ten butchered in film,” Hill ex­plains over the phone from LA. “It’s usu­ally shown with peo­ple driv­ing through the hood or pop­ping bot­tles of cham­pagne, what I find is a dis­re­spect­ful way.”

He’s got a point. Apart from docs and biopics like Straight Outta Comp­ton, hip-hop in movies is reg­u­larly seg­re­gated to crime movies (from New Jack cinema to the new Su­perFly), dance movies (like Save The Last Dance) and the Fast & Fu­ri­ous fran­chise.

“To me, [hip-hop] was the emo­tional back­bone of my grow­ing up,” says Hill. “I wanted to make an el­e­gant film that showed that A Tribe Called Quest to me were what the Bea­tles were to my par­ents; and to show it as a true high art form and some­thing that re­ally means some­thing to a gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple.”

You’d have to go all the way back to F. Gary Gray’s Fri­day and John Sin­gle­ton’s Higher Learn­ing, movies ac­tu­ally from the mid-90s, to find hip-hop films that re­sem­ble a sim­ple comin­gof-age tale. That’s why see­ing the Mid90s laid-back trailer, with WuTang’s Tearz on the sound­track, had me ex­cited. But hav­ing such a story told by a white male film­maker does raise an eye­brow.

For the most part, Hill ac­quits him­self well. His story is about a lit­tle white kid, Suljic’s Ste­vie, who hangs on to this cul­ture and po­si­tions him­self awk­wardly when con­ver­sa­tions around race come up. Hill, much like Ste­vie, is cau­tious, par­tic­u­larly when some of his char­ac­ters re­peat­edly wield the Nword, ho­mo­pho­bic slurs and re­fer to women as “bitches.”

“I per­son­ally hate a lot of the lan­guage and a lot of the toxic mas­culin­ity in the film,” says Hill. “My choice as a film­maker was to show it hon­estly and un­com­fort­ably real.

“I’m not a moral­ist. I feel the most re­spect­ful thing to do is to tell the truth and let the au­di­ence have enough re­spect for me to de­cide how they feel about it. I have AfricanAmer­i­can char­ac­ters say­ing cer­tain lan­guage that peo­ple around me at that time said. I don’t have white char­ac­ters say­ing it. It’s not ter­mi­nol­ogy I per­son­ally use. It was how friends of mine spoke at that time.”

But while cau­tion is the right choice, es­pe­cially for some­one in Hill’s po­si­tion, it could also feel like a lim­i­ta­tion. I mean, if we were be­ing hon­est, the white kids in this story would have got­ten overly com­fort­able with the Nword, too.

As I pointed out in my TIFF re­view, the film also feels lim­ited when deal­ing with Ray, the old­est and wis­est among Ste­vie’s new group of friends. Played with light comic touches and a deep emo­tional re­serve by star skate­boarder Na-Kel Smith, Ray hap­pens to be the most ob­vi­ously Black in the group. The oth­ers are ei­ther white or mixed. The oth­ers are also flawed and reg­u­larly do or say trou­bling things, while Ray is as unim­peach­able as Sid­ney Poitier in Guess Who’s Com­ing To Din­ner.

When I ques­tion whether this char­ac­ter makeup is more of Hill’s cau­tious­ness, the di­rec­tor bris­tles.

“How I feel right now in this con­ver­sa­tion is that you have an opin­ion about these things,” says Hill, who’s not wrong.

“I wrote a film with com­plex char­ac­ters. I hope if I’m given the op­por­tu­nity to con­tinue to make film, I’ll al­ways write com­plex char­ac­ters.

“The char­ac­ter of Ray is my favourite char­ac­ter. Na-Kel, as an ac­tor, had the most depth to him out of all the young kids, which is why he played the per­son with the most depth to him as a char­ac­ter in the film. Be­cause he’s such a won­der­ful ac­tor he could pull off that kind of depth.” | @JustSayRad

Jonah Hill is cau­tious when talk­ing about his char­ac­ters us­ing the N-word.

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