The original vision Charles Stone III had planned for his Harlem opus Paid In Full opened with the three protagonists, Mekhi Phifer as Rich Porter (Mitch), Wood Harris as Azie Faison (Ace) and Cameron Giles as Alberto "Alpo" Martinez (Rico) in Mitch’s apartment playing Monopoly with real money. According to Stone’s gaudy vision each player would choose the piece that best represented him. (the top hat standing in for glamour, the car representing speed and power, etc.) This concept was shot down by Executive Producer Dame Dash and what we end up with is a portrait of the young men at the peak of their power and most frivolous with their obscene fortune. It’s a contest between Mitch and Rico, Mitch challenged to sink a crumpled up Chinese take-out bag in a small garbage basket on the other side of the room for 5,000$.
The scene is filled with banter that instantly introduces and endears the audience to its three pivotal players and Stone’s accounting of the labor pains the scene underwent in its creation highlights a key feature that must be considered when discussing the best movie ever made about the intertwined Hip Hop/crack culture of the 80s and 90s: Made in 2002, Paid In Full brought a respectful, first hand journalistic approach to (based on) real life subject matter, detail rich with an insistent commitment to honesty; character driven in ways previously unseen within the black crime genre that to this point had never shown the appropriate amount of respect for its subject or audience. According to Stone this is thanks to Dame Dash, his on set "Reality Police" along with Azie Faison, who met with both Dash and Stone, assisted in the making of the film and serves as its protagonist.
In large ways as well as small the film wields a local’s memory and eye for detail which reverberate throughout the production lending the believable feel. It would be easy to deride Paid In Full for its production value but the film and naturalistic lighting may or may not be intended, and certainly achieves an authenticity of setting, it doesn’t look like a movie made in 2002. Touches like brick sized cell phones, Cam’s hair and the wardrobe are perfect, for set design Porter’s house had been photographed in the 80s and replicated to the smallest detail on a studio stage. Dame was instrumental in choosing the soundtrack, songs like Busy Bee’s “Suicide” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. According to Stone, Dame insisted on the songs inclusion where the Director might’ve sought out a period specific street oriented mood setter for a scene where the hood shows out in fashion, congregating outside Willies Burgers before hitting the club. The Top 40 adult contempo radio smash isn’t what a viewer might expect but was a huge song in Harlem in the late 80s. The voice of Brucie B, an actual friend and associate of the trio as these events were unfolding in the late 80s serves as the disembodied ghost of Hip Hop past. He plays Greek Chorus throughout the film at the Roof Top, a rollerskating rink/club which served as a popular Harlem haunt.
Dame wanted this film to serve as a document to the hood lore he grew up with, it had to be authentic enough to hold muster with his demographic, others who had grown up in Harlem with the legend of AZ, Alpo and Rich and knew it well. Stone wanted a parable, a dramatization that would appeal to a greater audience previously ignorant to the story. In essence, the Gang banging, drug dealing morality play we’ve had shoved down our throats since the early 90s. In its willingness to portray the hustler as a conflicted individual and even at times a sympathetic hero Paid In Full is groundbreaking. This film is not another cliché ridden, hand wringing tirade against drug culture, making its eventually earned indictment the most powerful to date. Paid in Full takes risks and relates the reality of difficult times in ways that heavy handed portrayals like the Hughes Brothers’, John Singleton’s, Spike Lee’s and Hype Williams’ (the very worst) didn’t believe or believe their audience was prepared to appreciate.
Paid In Full succeeds in keeping the scope small but not due to any lack of ambition. The rise of crack and its eventual devastating impact on the inner city is painted graphically. There’s a difficult exchange near the beginning involving Calvin, the proto dumb asshole hustler dating Ace’s sister. Calvin comes to the table at dinner waving drug money in a then powerless Ace’s home, his mother too poor to refuse the money and presence she resents. Here, socioeconomic status in the ghetto is alluded to but left at the edges, a realistic portrayal of life. While films like Menace to Society are an apologist’s sociology lecture, portraying it’s characters as mongrelized products of their harsh environment Paid In Full presents the struggle as a piece of the puzzle that’s taken for granted. The relentless poverty is an accepted Sisyphean boulder that goes undiscussed by the film’s characters but not unacknowledged by the film. This speaks to a greater respectful treatment on the Stone's behalf, hallmark moments go unexplained but hinted at, allowed to merely exist on the side and left for the viewer to decipher.
Then there are the performances, sensitive and nuanced from the stars down to the bit players. Stone’s greatest decision is the room he gives his actor’s to flesh out their characters and improvise. There’s Wood Harris’ fantastic, spasmodic, off kilter rhythm, perfect for humble, spotlight shy Ace. Ace is by design a quiet observer, being played upon by forces of human nature. He’s a consummate business man, the first to recognize the value in wholesaling and undercutting prices, making his money in volume rather than markup. He’s without greed and powerlust, able to separate legit customers from Feds and stickups kids. The embodiment of the respectful pursuit of peaceful prosperity
Mitch and Rico are the dual light and dark aspects of fame and power, the "spotlight". Mekhi plays the dealer with a heart of gold, representing the love and admiration the spotlight lends to its star. Mitch is obsessed with flash and appearance but is well colored, never rendered shallow. He’s above sweating and physical activity, the always immaculately composed and put together pretty boy. There’s one particularly effective, wordless scene in which he painstakingly lays out his jewelry bedside like some sort of sacred ritual before going to sleep, cherishing his status symbols and fearing the barbarians champing at the gate. His bravado clearly stands in for a difficult home life and upbringing. After a troubling run in with his junkie Uncle Ice his junkie mother left in charge of Mitch’s pivotal little brother Sonny, Mitch tells Ace he needs to go out to the Roof Top that evening. That he needs “some love”. That Dame and Stone never feel the need to chide Mitch, to draw explicit lines between his profession and his situation at home is a testament to restraint. By the end Mitch will pay the ultimate price for his transgressions, costing both he and Sonny their very lives, a judgment rendered powerfully and silently.
But of course, Giles steals the show, outshining his seasoned co-stars and it makes sense. Cam was the only Harlem product on camera and as Rico he is the outlandish but ultimately believable id driving the dark element at play in this ruthless business. Cam’s Rico is all frenetic energy, writhing, shifty eyed calculation, a lit fuse with shadowy intent and motivation. In almost every interaction he’s pledging completely unbelievable but insistent undying loyalty. He’s a needy sociopath, over eager in his transparent, over compensating insecurity, unrepentant, combative and antagonistic. He wears hand painted graffiti shirts advertising and asserting himself at all times, a robe in the club with a bottle of Champaign in one hand and a blunt in the other watching homemade violent porn on a big screen. He’s fueled by a love of war and refusal to play by the rules, to do anything beaides what he wants which is grab attention and fear. He trots to Ace with an unloyal dealer like a dog with a dead bird in his teeth, shooting him in the ass on the street in broad daylight. The scene in which he betrays Mitch is a fucking clinic, he’s still an asshole as he callously eats potato chips, half heartedly consoling Ace after he’s been shot and had his loved ones murdered.
Paid in Full is not without its shortcomings. It was written by two largely green screenwriters and at times it's painfully noticeable. It packs a lot, perhaps too much into 100 minutes and as a result plot moves at a breakneck pace without much time for development between stages. There’s Ace’s hand holding voice over along the way which could potentially be looked at as a lack of ability to write a cohesive script that moves of its own volition. We lull on three somewhat clichéd plateaus of Ace’s humble beginning, his rein atop Harlem and the grim aftermath, moving from stage to stage with little to no transition. The characters are perhaps a bit too well defined; one note and straight forward. Ace is always the smooth and cautious paternalistic arm of the operation, Mitch is all friendly competition, good-natured and ambitious but ultimately operates by a moral code and is deferential to Ace, Rico is the loose cannon, never a steady thought or sober moment. It’s all capped with a kind of pat, closure lending, bitter sweet finish. Young men and women in bandannas and puffy coats are throwing dollar bills into a fan in front of Willie’s Burgers as Ace looks on, a technical adviser. The Director calls action and the slate snaps, the film ends where the legend begins.
The most profound insight and greatest accomplishment Paid In Full achieves is contained in its running theme of the physical and metaphorical spotlight. Rico and Mitch are ensnared in a never ending quest for its attention, Ace runs from it. It’s attention, love, respect, fear, a moment in which an individual can be special and recognized within the community. Through this lens Paid In Full presents the argument that drug dealing at this point in the 80s when the streets ran green with cash was almost like an expression, akin to graffiti or Hip Hop. A self made identity, a standard of fabulousness that was a desperate grab for a different life in a disparate environment. Mitch was garish in his tracksuits, fish hats and gaudy cars but in audacious boasting of owning every fiend uptown between 1st and Riverside, getting more money than a rival dealer in the community with nicer kicks, a more expensive ride and a flyer bitch. Stone and Dash are drawing parallels to a Wildstyle on the side of the 4 train or a Biz Markie song, willed dope by conviction of the author and the receptive audience.
Ultimately they reveal the hollow gaze of the light, the dark element drugs bring out in its dealers and customers and in doing so Paid In Full is this generation’s Goodfellas. A lifting of the glorified veil revealing the dark, sad, deadly underbelly of the criminal mind and heart in New York’s inner city during the late 80s. It does this in a language wrought in humanity, the studied eye of a first person account conveying its message through real, believable action. It’s a love letter, a cautionary tale and a great movie.