Credit: Gianni Giardinelli / Sony Pictures
by Luke Gorham Film

Suprêmes | Audrey Estrougo

July 21, 2021

Promotional materials for Audrey Estrougo’s Suprême NTM biopic — imaginatively titled Suprêmes notes La Haine, Les Misérables, and Straight Outta Compton as reference points for its temper and content. As such things go, it’s actually not a bad triangulation, assuming you don’t overestimate any of those films. In detailing the rise of the rap duo/collective, the film’s initial section — a look at the early days when the boys’ primary artistic outlet was tagging and crime was a casual reality — approximates the grime of Mathieu Kassovitz’s landmark film, before veering hard in its back half into standard band-biopic fare (a development which also dogged the more singular pleasures of F. Gary Gray’s NWA effort). It’s a disappointing but predictable culmination, the destination of so many such middling treatments, but that’s not to deny any of the early charm. As is the case with most hip hop and punk rock origin stories, antiestablishment sentiment — often dovetailing into anarchic dogma, depending on the film — courses through the narrative, most fully realized in Theo Christine’s big performance as JoeyStarr, no doubt chewing scenery but also bursting with dangerous, manic energy, seeming perpetually pitched at a precipice from his first introduction (for his part, Sandor Funtek’s turn as Kool Shen is solid, maybe even better than that, but often feels overwhelmed by proximity to Christine’s archer characterization). For a while, Estrougo successfully rides this bullet-shot momentum, each scene bursting into the next, barely slowing down to take in the chaos of the come-up. 

But it’s unsustainable. Conflict must come, and it’s of the supremely generic variety here: present is the mere requisite, including ego clashes, divergent work ethics, parental expectations, etc. Effort is made to sketch contemporaneous commentary, and in fairness, it’s not a manipulative flourish; Suprême NTM’s found clear influence in groups like Public Enemy, and both their textual and extratextual language called out social ills including police brutality, intentional economic disparity, and systemic racism (this constitutes the whole of any Les Misérables comparisons). But as realized in Estrougo’s film, such incisive political commentary is left as window dressing; where Straight Outta Compton, despite other sins, refused to whitewash NWA’s rhetoric, Suprêmes is too easily distracted by interpersonal dynamics and unraveling myth at the expense of any real interrogation of this ideology, its cultural situation, and the way it’s internalized and changes characters. Sure, it concisely impacts the group’s righteousness as subversives, but given the otherwise anonymous narrative work here, it feels more like cheap virtue signalling than meaningful discourse. It’s tough to too vehemently object to this kind of flattened true-life take, as it has seemingly become the de facto mode of biographic filmmaking, conforming to traditional literary structures without any real imagination, but it’s perhaps more disappointing here for the gusto of its opening stretch. Few things are less reflective of Suprême NTM than the fervorless, anonymous slog Estrougo’s film ultimately becomes.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 9.