Sacha Jenkins is the hero hip-hop needed. While his rap documentary, “Word Is Bond,” indicates he’s a first-rate nonfiction filmmaker, it also establishes him as the critic-champion of a movement, much in the way that, say, Clement Greenberg served Abstract Expressionism, or the French Nouvelle Vague critics rescued the underrated auteurs of Hollywood. He explores, explains and identifies an oft-derided genre as something with a creative ethic, aesthetic standards, a nomenclature, a literary foundation. It’s an ennobling movie, and also happens to be quite watchable.
Mr. Jenkins doesn’t enter the picture himself, nor does he approach many of the obvious names in the rap pantheon—the points made by several of the MCs he does talk to are about the purity and honesty of the lyric, what they feel is the abhorrent practice of rapping ghostwritten words and the compromises wrought by celebrity. The director allows the artists to do the talking, and while this writer is no authority, the cast list seems to have been limited to those whose work has made a significant difference to the form—from older artists like Rakim, Freeway and Nas to the anarchic Flatbush Zombies, J. Cole and the startling Anderson .Paak, who combines his rhymes with some very decent drumming and even the occasional melody.
“Word Is Bond” is not a history, or even a survey of rap; some of the omissions are curious, and obvious. But it’s always perilous to try and capture the creative process of one medium through another—many films have failed to do just that. Mr. Jenkins pulls it off.