We revisit the MTV hip hopera that is truly an underrated masterpiece that birthed the star we’ve come to know and love
All hail Queen Beyoncé and her newborn twins who will save us from this hell we call life. After a wonderfully extra and very public photo shoot announcement of her pregnancy, the recent arrival of the currently unnamed heirs to the throne has been unusually low-key. We only know that they exist because her Dad let it slip on social media via a cheesy balloon graphic. As one fan wrote: “Imagine being Beyoncé and having an extravagant announcement planned and then your father announces it with a Microsoft Word flyer.”
Given her almost god-like status in the music industry, it seems it would be almost impossible for her to keep a secret – both personally and professionally. However, there is something else that Beyoncé has been hiding from you, but you deserve to know. Before “Crazy in Love”, “Bootylicious”, even before “Survivor” – there was Carmen: A Hip Hopera, her lost acting debut. It was a role she was born to play.
Billed as “a timeless story told through rhyme”, the modern day reimagining of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera was set to a hip hop and R&B score. The seductive and aspirational protagonist foreshadowed Beyonce’s real life drive to make it big without Destiny’s Child, although she said that the character does things that she “would never do”. And, by sparking her solo exploits and kickstarting her acting career, Carmen essentially gave birth to Beyoncé as we know her.
THE OSCAR WORTHY PLOT AND DIALOGUE
It is a crying shame nobody won an Oscar for this straight-to-DVD classic, namely Michael Elliot for writing such a compelling tale, and Robert Townsend for bringing it to life. There are so many whiplash-inducing plot twists it’s quite difficult, to sum up but I’ll try. When we first meet Carmen Brown it's clear the aspiring actress is a victim of her own good looks as her stunning beauty causes chaos wherever she goes. After being dragged into a bar fight with a jealous woman, she is arrested but manages to seduce the respectable officer so that she can break free. He ends up going to prison instead, losing his job, fiancé and credibility, while she writes him love letters on the outside promising him a better life. The two embark on a new life together so Carmen can chase her dreams in Hollywood – but she gets bored easily and is inherently selfish so when they hit minor bumps in the road she flees. As she leaves him for a more successful rapper he says: “But I gave up my life for you” and she replies “What, you expect me to give up mine?” Yeah, kind of! Anyway, she ends up getting shot that night at her new lover’s concert.
THE ICONIC CAST
Starring alongside the singer is any early noughties MTV Base fan’s fantasy cast. Carmen’s love interest Sergeant Derek Hill is played by good cop Mekhi Phifer, you may know him as the love rat from Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine” video and of course the guy with dreads in 8 Mile. Mos Def/ Yasiin Bey is the bent cop, Lieutenant Miller, who starts the film by sending Jermaine Dupri and Lil Bow Wow to jail on bogus charges despite the latter being about 12. When Sgt Hill protests against his malpractice, Miller proceeds to take joy in ruining his life. Da Brat narrates the film by rap, and Wyclef Jean makes an appearance as a Fortune Teller who tells Carmen she is going to die.
Obviously, what makes the movie an original take on storytelling is the music. And for what Beyoncé lacks in convincing dialogue she makes up for in her rapped verses. In fact, the mix of hip hop heavyweights like Da Brat, Rah Diggah and Mos Def rapping along with the usually tuneful singer and actors who have never rapped before makes for entertaining and sometimes slightly hilarious viewing. In the scene where Sgt. Hill and Lt. Miller finally come to blows, Phifer even holds his own against Mos Def’s slick put-downs – the same cannot be said for the scene where he sings along with Beyoncé.
THE VISUAL ROLLER COASTER
OK, so the film has dated badly. But it is a masterpiece for that very reason. At every turn, the filmmakers attempted to break the mould of an opera, and the result is a dramatic rollercoaster blended together with scenes that play out like a noughties music video. Beyond the awkward green screen scenes and Word Art text overlays, the biggest throwbacks come from Beyonce’s outfits. Some scenes she is serving up some classic silver screen siren looks with a Spanish twist, at other times she rocks torn up tees and du-rags, and it works. Because she is Beyoncé.
You can watch the making of it here