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Paid in Full (2002); For the Love of the Hustle

September 29, 2015

paidinfullIf I were to name of an inconceivable amount of money, $50,000 would be it. To even imagine this type of money only makes sense to me when I envision tangible items that this amount is worth: a house, about a year’s worth of tuition, room, and board at Harvard or virtually any other Ivy League school, an Aston Martin, all of my student loan debts. It takes some fortunate people an entire year to make this type of money. For the rest of us average folks this type of money is like seeing a unicorn on the back of Satan during an ice age. While some are more privileged than others to make this type of money in a matter of years, some cheat the system doubling this amount in a span of weeks. That’s how three Harlem drug dealers did it in the mid-1980s at least. AZ Faison, Alpo Martinez, Rich Porter made upwards to $100,000 a week from selling crack during the “War on Drugs” and Charles Stone III’s Paid in Full is the story of how these men became legends in Harlem, New York while doing it.

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Often toted as a “hood film”, Paid on Full breaks beyond the genre’s expectations reminding us why such a simple genre term can seem belittling to a story being told on screen. Paid in Full centers itself more as a character study of its three leads. The era’s drug epidemic, most notably crack, and its effects are a mere backdrop in Paid in Full, yet it still stands as a film that relays an important story without exploitation and glamour. These three young men from Harlem (named Ace, Rico, and Mitch in the film) managed to avoid getting hooked on the product they slang, but ultimately found themselves in trapped in the roles they took dealing it. The drama that unfolds from their decision to fall into the drug game with open arms and green eyes is unbelievable at times. In fact, a google search made me realize just how close to the truth the film really is.  Its heartbreaking story resonates deep due to the fantastic performances and a stylish narrative thanks to Brian DePalma’s long time editor Charles Pankow (coincidentally Scarface is featured in the film and is said to be an influence on Ace entering the drug game).

For every person who finds themselves selling drugs there is always a reason– some deep egotistical desire that drives one to contribute to the crumbling of someone else’s life. Paid in Full touches on this with its characters. Some embrace the game for the money, some for the fame and respect in their neighborhood. And for others, as Mekhi Phifer eloquently admits through Mitch, it’s the pure love of the hustle and the game itself. Mitch is given a code, a lesson that Omar from “The Wire” so intelligently reminds us, a man’s gotta have a code. For Mitch it’s not just the new clothes, the fanciest cars, the love from the hood, it’s seeing his hood prospering. The common phrase among the group is “everybody eats”. Though there is a tier of where money is funneled through everyone benefits from it because the hood gives back to Mitch and his gang as much as he gives to them. While Az’s reasons aren’t fleshed out with the poise of other characters it becomes apparent how peer pressure and curiosity ultimately wins him over. Az starts the film working at a dry cleaners attempting to make an honest living but gets a constant reminder from the sea of drug pins in his neighborhood that honest living is a fool’s game.

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Wood Harris, an incredibly underrated actor and long favorite of mine, is at his best throughout Paid in Full, lathering on the charm in scenes then showing his intensity and range as an actor when necessary. Phifer delivers a titan of a performance filled with genuineness and passion. Phifer shows a range that isn’t noticeable in many of his more contemporary roles further proving that role choice has been his downfall throughout the years and not his talent. But, the MVP goes to Cam’Ron as Rico. Cam is so great in his role, so unbelievably dastardly dumb and crooked that it’s chilling. I questioned multiple times throughout the film if Cam is a legitimately great actor or if the role was so personal that he channeled it effortlessly.

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Paid in Full doesn’t possess the breathtaking direction that Hype Williams bestowed in Belly a few years prior, nor does its story capture just how young and influential these men were in Harlem and furthermore in modern day hip-hop . Nevertheless, the focus on their story dissuades from a life of drug dealing while the techniques of Charles Stone’s direction cements the trio’s experiences for better or worse. Alongside Pankow, whose phenomenal editing techniques jumps over time and space revisiting past moments in flashes of lightning speed, the duo makes a gripping film that showcases the talent of every actor and actress (I see you Regina Hall) involved. All around Paid in Full is a gut wrenching, fascinating true crime story that doesn’t glorify the drug game. Instead it reveals all the pain and suffering that spawns from within the drug game itself.

SEE IT. It stands on its own as an impressive look into the drug world and the stranger than reality tale of the real life trio.

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