Style Wars (1983)

Genres - Culture & Society  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Graphic & Applied Arts, Jazz & Modern Dance, Sociology  |   Run Time - 60 min.  |   Countries - United States   |  
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Review by Michael Buening

Shot between 1981 and 1983 and aired on PBS, Style Wars is remarkable as a relatively early filmed document of hip-hop culture at its source and an intelligent defense of an oft-maligned and misunderstood art form, graffiti. It is constructed as an investigative news piece with stentorian narrator Sam Schacht, presenting an equally weighed back and forth debate over whether graffiti is art or vandalism. But from an opening scene, when a young writer pouts while his mom harangues him over his hobby, it's clear where directors Henry Chalfant andTony Silver's sympathies lie. Cameraman Burleigh Wartes captures subway train murals at opportune locations, where the car-length paintings majestically unfurl for maximum impact. Editors Sam Pollard, Victor Kanefsky, and Mary Alfieri edit these sequences to the 4/4 beat of early rap music, one of the first attempts to develop a hip-hop-influenced cutting technique. Though not addressed directly, the documentary also helps refute a common myth about graffiti culture -- that it had an integral connection with break dancing and rapping and was mostly carried out by black and Hispanic kids. Some of the most interesting footage tracks writers on tagging runs -- jumping fences into train yards and navigating the city's underground tunnels. Though the passion and thrill of artistic discovery is palpable, one is left with the feeling that graffiti was, for the most part, a movement that flowered during a unique situation in New York's history. Style Wars captures this movement as it is just starting to wane, when mayor Ed Koch's crackdowns started having a serious effect and a general overall increase in New York City's quality of life demanded more effective cleanups. The growing media saturation is typified by the clueless and somewhat exploitative attention given by the Soho galleries crowd. Of further note are appearances by writers Dondi, Daze, and Cap One, and a performance by the Rock Steady Crew.