We’re up to 1995 in our Throwback August series, and that means it’s Friday.
The current king of the multiplex is Straight Outta Compton, the story of hip hop pioneers NWA. See this week’s Memphis Flyer for a full review of the movie that has smashed box office expectations at every turn. That film was produced, in part, by NWA founding member Ice Cube, and directed by F. Gary Gray. When we last see Cube, he’s writing on a hilariously out-of-date laptop on the screenplay of Friday, the project that launched both of their film careers.
Friday is often referred to as a cult classic, but I’m not sure that’s accurate, because that cult would extend to virtually everyone who has had a DVD player in the last twenty years. It did 9 times its $3.5 million budget at the box office, and made a whole lot more than that on home video. There’s no doubt, however, that it is an under recognized classic of the 90s indie film revolution.
The film Friday most closely resembles is Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which made its way to theaters in 1994. Cube stars as Craig Jones, a young Los Angeles man who just lost his job, despite it being his day off—shades of Dante Hicks’s complaint that “I’m not even supposed to be here!” in Clerks. Inspired by Smith, Cube and Gray use a loose, episodic structure to create what is essentially a comedy of manners. Craig and his friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) hang out on his front porch and watch the neighborhood go by, painting a finely observed portrait of a predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood. Like the underemployed slackers in Clerks, Craig and Smokey are lovable, lower-class losers. But since they live in the hood, the stakes are higher for them than for Dante, Jay, and Silent Bob. The Clerks are trying to get a date and find meaning in shit jobs. Between stoner gags, Craig and Smokey are dodging murderous drug dealers and trying not to get killed.
The other film influence bubbling up in Friday is Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. There's a not-so-subtle anti-gun violence message in Cube's script, but when it veers from observational humor into full on Mookie should-he or shouldn't-he start the riot territory in the end, it seems forced and lacks Lee's gravitas. Twenty years later, in Straight Outta Compton, Cube's attempts at social commentary are much more effective.
Cube is a natural actor, completely confident on screen and not afraid to show vulnerability. Chris Tucker’s deliciously over-the-top performance is somewhere between pantomime and break dancing. By the time Rush Hour rolled around in 1998, his schtick would become tiresome, but here, he’s exactly the hyperactive friend Craig needs.
There are some other great performances, such as the late Bernie Mac as the jive talking Pastor Clever and John Witherspoon’s immortal take as the Craig’s vulgar, food-obsessed father. But besides Anna May Horsford as Craig’s mother, female roles are thin—a fault Straight Outta Compton shares.
The heart of the indie movement is that the art of filmmaking should not and can not be contained by access to capital. Cube took that emerging ethos and ran with it hard. If you can scrounge up a camera, a light kit, and some friends, there’s nothing stopping you from making your own version of Friday right now. Since the digital revolution, which would begin to be felt three years after Friday, you’ll even have it easier than Cube and Gray. But don’t be surprised if your movie isn’t as good as Friday, because hey, you’re not Ice Cube.