Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


John Heathcote
Best site: The COINTELPRO Papers

COINTELPRO: FBI Activities in Hollywood

Cointelpro Revisited - Spying & Disruption


Armies of Repression: The FBI, COINTELPRO and Far Right Vigilante Networks

COINTELPRO: The Sabotage Of Legitimate Dissent

A film directed by Vondie Curtis Hall (1997)

Good time to kick; Bad day to pick

Starring Tupac Shakur (above), Tim Roth and Thandie Newton

GRIDLOCK'd is a movie that demonstrates with a grim understated humour, the paradox of a nation that consumes more narcotics than any other on the planet, and yet cannot provide decent healthcare for its own people.
The film features the British actors, a grizzled Tim Roth and the beautiful Thandie Newton; as well as the late lamented Tupac Shakur. The three actors play a trio of be-bop musicians, with Tupac's bass and Roth's jazz piano framing the lyrics of poetess Cookie, played by Thandie Newton. Although shown as a central part of their little nuclear family, she spends most of the film featured in flashbacks. During the action she's actually lying in a hospital bed recovering from the after-effects of joining the boys in a quick fix.
That is one of the suprising elements of the film; that instead of featuring Hollywood's favourite drug, the white powder scooped up and advertised long before Scarface; GRIDLOCK'd pitches us into the bleak, surreal world of the heroin addict. spends most of the film featured in flashbacks. By featuring the group as one dealing in a sort of jazz poetry, rather than rap or rock, we see grim reality seen through the dreamhaze of an opiated bubble; with Stretch, Cookie and Snow the inheritors of the romantic lineage of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, in a long line of celebrated boho junkies. Cookie's dreamworld represents the secret of heroin's fatal appeal; to souls lost in a dimension where the rythms of music become the lifeblood of your heart. How you can be 'gone' in the most total way, where nothing affects you; the poverty, the disappointments, the rip-offs; or public indifference to artists who only become romanticised idols in the public consciousness when they have long been laid to rest in a pauper's grave. The freedom to escape if only for a few hours, in a little square wrap of paper.
The film is cut three ways; between straightforward action, social realism (or the nearest that Hollywood is ever likely to reach); and scenes where the morphic silence of men sharing an addiction to the dreamworld are captured. These three strands are glued into one fibre by the relationship between the three protagonists. Cookie's absence for a large part of the 'action' reveals an aspect of the ultimate 'buddy' movie where two men travel through the underworld, without moving, feeling, or thinking beyond the hit, and how to get it. The relationship between the characteristically screwed-up South London intensity of Roth, who plays the demented keyboard junkie on a one way trip to oblivion; and his bond with the good natured and sensible Snow, played by Tupac; hangs together in a dynamic peculiar to musicians, with Cookie as the almost invisible powerful fulcrum.
Shocked by Cookie's OD, Snow is determined to clean himself up - and it is this wish to get into a detox programme that provides the most real and relevant action in the film. The 'gridlock' referred to in the title is the state of the medical and welfare systems in the US, which are mired in bureaucracy; designed, it seems, to hold off the poor from demanding healthcare until they are dead. There is the tragi-comic sight of Tupac and Tim as they stumble in a pinned- out state around the detox clinics, casualty areas, and the odd government office trying to get on a rehab programme. It is clear that the filmmaker's sympathies are placed more on the side of the addicts than their controllers across the counters and behind the hatches.
GRIDLOCK'd could easily have been yet another gangsta, gear and guns movie, especially with the rep that preceeds the rapper, but the 'action' element seems almost tagged on as an afterthought. Maybe it was added later, to spice up what would no doubt have been perceived by the Hollywierd industry as a worthy social movie best left to Europeans. The Loach-like scenes are interspersed with the occasional chase through the streets, after the local superfly realises that they have stolen 'his' stash. Being junkies rather than coke-heads, neither muso owns a car, thankfully sparing us the usual cliched autogeddon pile-ups.
Although the 'stash' is every junkie's dream, a free parcel of powder, it is perhaps more of a McGuffin, used to provide a parallel chase, and the image of ultimate temptation to our stoned heroes. The film is fairly novel for a glossy Hollywood star vehicle, featuring lots of 'unattractive' - for which, read real - people, and the sort of places from the underbelly of the Shining City which are rarely depicted.
The presence of Tupac in a film dealing with this subject has a certain poignance as well. He was the nephew of a woman called Assata Shakur, who was central in the attempts to set up detox clinics for the junkies in the Bronx, in the 70's. and was subsequently persecuted by the FBI under the COINTELPRO programme and driven into exile in Cuba. Most actors make unconvincing musicians, and vice versa, but Tupac doesn't try too hard, which is probably the hardest thing to master.
It is only at the end of the film when we finally see the band performing in a club; that we get a glimpse into the power of music, more potent than any drug. We become aware, perhaps too late, like the musicians themselves; that all heroin really does is fill in the space, the empty time; between those peaks of sublime expression and communication connecting the artist and audience.
Tupac finishes the performance with a piece of jazz poetry, that perhaps demonstrates the unspoken link between rap and previous urban art movements which have emerged from the ghettos and projects of the Americas. It also leaves you to ponder on what he might have become if a hail of bullets had not removed him from the arena of the living; and silenced yet another voice of the urban, criminalised poor. It is a far more mature, and deeper film than 'Juice', in which he played a stereotyped, predictable junior psycho-gangsta; especially when compared, for instance, to Boaz Yakim's 1994 film Fresh, which dealt with a similar subject on a much more profound level.
Although this film could not be described as a movie milestone, it is worth watching for the understanding hidden in the detail; as well as its unpredictable and unusual perspectives on the so-called sub-cultures of modern Amerika.
This review will soon be followed by an overview of the questions which still hang over the death of Tupac. Further information on the continuing COINTELPRO activities of agencies of the US government in the pages of FLAME.