Sure, nature’s nice, with its trees and wildlife and whatnot, but there’s something about city living that makes you feel even more alive. There’s immeasurable beauty in the architecture, the street art, the flowers growing in concrete, and even in the gritty alleyways and dark corners. But what really makes an urban landscape come to life is its people.
Urban warriors have a distinct spirit, a certain zest for life. From graffiti artists to hip-hop lyricists to everyday folks, cities are filled with creators, visionaries, and dreamers. That’s because urban culture is the perfect incubator for creative expression, experimentation, and trailblazing — there’s a reason why Biggie’s “Juicy” begins with “It was all a dream.” So it’s no surprise that some of the most iconic artists and musicians came up on city streets. We’ve rounded up five documentaries that perfectly capture the essence of urban life, celebrate legendary creators, and give proper cred to those with street cred.
Before Humans of New York, there was Jamel Shabazz. In the ‘80s, Shabazz took to the streets and subways of New York City to document urban and hip-hop culture. His snapshots formed what is now considered the picture bible of hip-hop’s heyday: his photography book “Back in the Days.” He was also one of the first photographers to capture the vibrant energy of riding the subway, calling it his “gallery.” “There’s never a dull moment on the subway.” Those of us who live in New York can attest that that is absolutely true.
Speaking of the subway, “Stations of the Elevated” is like the ultimate love letter to the MTA. That’s a shocking concept these days, but “Stations of the Elevated” paints a picture of a very different time, and a very different New York City. The documentary is a simple and poignant visual storyboard of New York’s graffiti-covered elevated subway lines in the 1970s. There is no narration, allowing the images to speak for themselves, set to a soundtrack of jazz and ambient noise. Graffiti has always struggled to be fully accepted as an artform, but seeing these colorful subway colors woven together with snapshots of urban life, you won’t be able to see it any other way. You might even — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — have a newfound appreciation for the MTA.
When it comes to hip-hop, these two are the pinnacle. They are legends. If you don’t know who Biggie and 2Pac are, first of all, how dare you? Perhaps they were before your time (which is only slightly more excusable), in which case put down the trap music and give this documentary a watch. Filmmaker Nick Broomfield risked his life to dig deeper into the deaths of Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac Shakur, who were both shot down at the heights of their respective careers. While Biggie represented the East Coast and 2Pac repped the West, both were unparalleled in their lyricism and the two effectively defined hip-hop in the ‘90s. The documentary sheds light on how they both fell victim to the gangster lifestyle they rapped about. If you don’t know, now you know.
Equally deserving of legendary status is Nas, who is hands down one of the most talented and razor-sharp hip-hop artists of all time. In “Nas: Time Is Illmatic,” fans will get to know the rapper’s early life and the story behind his debut album, “Illmatic,” which is widely considered to be one of the most important and defining albums in hip-hop history. Anyone who has ever worked in the genre, from Jay Z to Kendrick Lamar, will likely cite “Illmatic” as a major influence. The documentary does not skim on other big-name artists who look up to Nas, and features interviews with Alicia Keys, Pharrell Williams, Q-Tip, and Busta Rhymes.
Filmmaker Cheryl Dunn turns the spotlight on the ones who are usually behind the lens: New York City street photographers. The documentary features photographers like Jill Freedman, Bruce Davidson, Joel Meyerowitz, Martha Cooper, and, yup, Jamel Shabazz, and follows their process in capturing everything from sidewalk arrests to gun-brandishing gangsters to topless grandmas in Brighton Beach. These are not just talented photographers; these are the masters of New York City life, able to turn split-second moments into stories worth 1,000 words.