Respeto tells the story of Hendrix (Abra), a poor kid suffering under the thumb of his older sister’s drug-dealing boyfriend. He dreams of becoming a hip-hop artist, and he’s drawn to the world of underground rap battles. But Hendrix doesn’t quite have the skills to hang with more seasoned battlers, and he ends up losing some money that wasn’t his to lose. He gets his friends together and tries to rob a book shop, but they get caught. They end up having to work off their offense by rebuilding some shelves that they damaged. And Hendrix gets to know the book shop’s owner, Doc (Dido de la Paz), a poet haunted by his past.If this were just any other movie, that setup would lead to something that might resemble a mashup of 8 Mile and The Karate Kid, with Doc serving as Mr. Miyagi to the precocious young Hendrix, and them taking on the dominant forces in the world of underground battle rap. But Respeto has something else on its mind, the oppression of past and present intersecting in this unique milieu. This is one of the first films to truly tackle this current era of extrajudicial killings, and it does so with striking panache and courage.The story itself plays out a little strangely, in that Hendrix isn’t much of a hero. The film hardly gets around to the story of his growth and redemption, which is kind of understandable in context, but still doesn’t make for a particularly workable narrative structure. It feels like the two main characters spend too much time apart, and not enough time really learning from each other. It is interesting to a point that the film is so committing to depriving audiences of the conventional pleasures of this setup, but the lack of progress within Hendrix does become problematic.But again, it turns out that this film is hardly about winning rap battles at all. It draws something more powerful through the stark juxtaposition of two generations of oppressed peoples. It bravely draws the line between the Martial Law Era and the current drug war, the relationship between the two main characters brought into sharper focus through mutual experiences with injustice and the cycle of violence. The film never really does get to the expected climactic rap battle where everything he’s learned from Doc comes into play. Instead, the film wails into the void, underlining the tragedy of where we are now, and the necessity for something else.
The narrative may not completely work out, but the film pulls off its tricky juxtaposition anyway through sheer craft. The whole movie just looks wonderful, and it confidently strings together its scenes regardless of how disparate they might seem at first. Abra can’t fully sell the worthiness of his character, but the movie does come alive through his earnest delivery. But really, the movie belongs to the tremendous Dido de la Paz, whose outward ornery demeanor is quickly offset in moments of quiet menace. The actor lets the pain of his character be visible in every moment, the horrors of martial law never far from the surface.Respeto has its flaws, but it feels vital. It feels downright necessary, given everything that’s going on right now. The film’s ambitions were perhaps too huge to ever really get right in a 100-minute entertainment, but that it tried at all and got so much right is a real feat. The film itself will tell you that making art isn’t quite enough to fight back. But it is still necessary to make art, to craft entertainment that can highlight the ways in which people are hurting, and what must be done to solve it. This is, in the end, a pretty remarkable movie that ought to be seen and talked about.
RESPETO IS NOW SHOWING IN SELECT CINEMAS NATIONWIDE