Paramount+ will release J.M. Harper’s documentary “As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial,” which debuted at Sundance, on its streaming platform on Tuesday, February 27 in the U.S. and Canada, IndieWire exclusively shares.
“As We Speak” made its premiere on Monday, January 22 in Park City in the U.S. Documentary competition. As the film is a competition title, it will be available on Sundance’s online streaming platform beginning January 25 for the digital portion of the festival. The film will also be available on February 28 in the UK, Australia, Latin America, Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
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While “As We Speak” was not a sales title at the fest, Paramount+’s involvement was kept quiet to the general public until its premiere on Monday, January 22. IndieWire, along with the release date, shares new stills from the film, its official key art, and the first trailer, all of which you can see below.
Directed by J.M. Harper (“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”), “As We Speak” follows Bronx rap artist Kemba as he explores the growing weaponization of rap lyrics in the United States criminal justice system and abroad. For decades, prosecutors and law enforcement have used rap verses as evidence against them in criminal cases. Spanning back to the ’90s, the film uncovers over 700 criminal court cases that have used rap lyrics as evidence against defendants, many of them young Black men. The same would be virtually unthinkable with white artists singing country or rock songs.
“I feel hopeful and enthusiastic that when people see the film, they will see it and hear it not as an academic exposé. It won’t be as if it is coming from a courtroom, but it’ll be from the person of an artist, specifically Kemba,” Harper told IndieWire. “When people hear the story from his point of view, it’s going to change the perspective. So for it to come out on a platform like Paramount+ is huge, because that means it’s going to be seen by many, many people.”
Lyrics as evidence in the courtroom have sparked enormous media attention recently in the case of Young Thug (real name Jeffrey Williams), an Atlanta-based rapper indicted in May 2022 in a massive RICO case that alleged he was the head of a street gang known as “Young Slime Life,” accusing them of engaging in racketeering and possessing illegal guns and drugs. Williams’ defense attorneys argued that YSL refers to “Young Stoner Life,” the name of Young Thug’s music label, and they’ve further fought to prevent Young Thug’s lyrics from being used as evidence in the court case.
Williams’ case has been ongoing for weeks, and Harper tells IndieWire that after five years trying to get the film made, they finally found the market appetite to start production after Young Thug was arrested, as his case had been the highest profile yet.
While the film doesn’t aim to prove innocence or guilt for anyone, it does make the case that artistic expressions specifically should be off the table in criminal cases. “As We Speak,” in one instance, illustrates that by recruiting Chicago rappers to recite Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to make a comment about vendetta violence.
“My hope is that it causes people to think, and if they watch the film and they think, I think they’ll arrive at the same conclusions that we did, which is when it comes to freedom of speech, when it comes to the music, when you can see the story from the perspective of the artist, I think it becomes glaringly clear the problems of the criminal justice system and why it needs to be changed, not just for the hundreds and thousands of rap artists, but also normal people out there who find themselves in that defendant seat,” Harper said.
“As We Speak” is directed and produced by J.M. Harper and also produced by Sam Widdoes and Peter Cambor for District 33 and Sam Bisbee for Park Pictures. Executive producers include Ryan Simon for Strike Anywhere, Cody Ryder for Park Pictures, Bruce Gillmer, and Amanda Culkowski for MTV Entertainment Studios, and Max Allman. The documentary made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22.
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