Mention the concept of a “black horror” film and a handful of titles are likely to come to the mind of horror fans: Blacula, Sugar Hill, Def by Temptation, and anthologies like Tales from the Hood and the recent Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror are probably the best-known films in this unfortunately sparse subgenre. While it’s being marketed as a genre film, You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You is more of a drama and police procedural than a slasher film. Executive produced by Spike Lee, Nobody is a straightforward, non-supernatural story that also points up social issues surrounding hip hop artists and the music industry.
Following the murders of popular rappers AD (Michael K. Williams) and Cipha (Al Thompson), the New York police seem to have more on their hands than just the fallout of another clash of egomaniacs. Poetry found at the scene of the crimes seems to indicate that a serial killer is on the loose, targeting high-profile rap stars. Detectives Johnson (James McDaniel) and Francelli (Michael Mosley) are assigned to the case– Johnson is completely uninterested in hip hop culture and mere days away from retirement, while Francelli is a big fan who finds himself suddenly immersed in the world of his favorite artists. While the press speculates on who the next victim will be, Johnson and Francelli must work together to stop the killer before the real story gets out.
Speculation on that next victim all seems to point to Manchild (Nashawn Kearse), an up-and-coming rapper about to drop a new album. The film is about evenly split between the detectives’ investigation into the murders and Manchild’s paranoid reaction to the possibility that he may be the killer’s next target. He holes up in his apartment or recording studio with his friends, ducking out to make public appearances, while Johnson and Francelli keep an eye out for the killer. Interspersed with the main action are “man on the street” interviews talking to people about hip hop culture, sometimes confusingly thrown into the middle of scenes in action. These interviews are the film’s most direct form of addressing social issues, but they seem mostly there to cover up the seams between scenes.
The main problem with You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You is that its criticisms of hip hop are wearyingly familiar. Is it a problem that artists are glorified after they get arrested, or considered more legitimate if they have a past steeped in criminal activity? It certainly is, but that’s nothing new, and the discussion is nothing new in film, either. The “spontaneous” interview segments are often jarring and confusing, and in at least one case are used to blatantly smooth over a chase scene that was probably not feasible with the film’s budget. Compounding these issues is a head-scratching final shot that seems completely unrelated to everything that just came before it. Unfortunately, You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You falls short as a genre film, and ends up more in the ballpark of an episode of Law & Order with more swear words.
Lions Gate released You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You on DVD 10 July 2012.