Movie Review: Paid In Full

By Erik Petersen
Movie Magazine International
Novice Charles Stone directs “Paid in Full”; a black gangster film set in Harlem in the 1980’s. The film stars Mekhi Phifer, Wood Harris and Cam’ron as the leaders of a drug empire. Wood Harris is Ace, the kid trying to follow the straight and narrow. At first he’s reluctant to get drawn into the life but after working for peanuts at the local dry cleaner and watching his pals rolling in fancy new cars and jewelry he can no longer resist. Together he and has two pals rise to prominence as the drug overlords of Harlem. However, following a familiar trajectory, greed and jealousy lead to their downfall.

Mekhi Phifer in particular stands out. A highly charismatic actor he’s able to overcome the weak material here. He was fantastic in last year’s largely overlooked “O” and he’s strong again this time. His relationship with his younger sibling is particularly touching. His co-star Wood Harris also delivers a nice understated performance. As the initially reluctant Ace we identify with him as he’s forced to watch everyone around him prosper while he limps along on minimum wage. We can hardly blame him when eventually he gives in to temptation.

In the late Eighties and Nineties black film makers found success with a slew of gangster films that depicted the allure and inevitable tragedy that befell anyone caught up in the gang living, hip hop lifestyle. Some of the earliest films of this genre included “New Jack City”, “Boyz in the Hood”, “Juice” and the fantastic Hughes brothers film “Menace to Society.” For the first time since the success of the so-called blaxploitation films of the 1970’s black actors, writers and directors were finding regular work within this newly revitalized niche in Hollywood. The studios, sometimes under protest of the glorified violence and drug use, supported the films largely because they were highly profitable.

For the most part the films depicted African American youth as disenfranchised from mainstream society. Like the films of the seventies the only option for success was alternative and often illegal paths. If they weren’t good enough to get an athletic scholarship and didn’t find success in music they found themselves turning to drug dealing and gang banging. In the tradition of Greek tragedy the often-arrogant hero would inevitably come crashing down to earth.

Eventually the popularity of these pictures waned. Part of this was due to the fact that the genre was feeling played out, like Westerns or Mafia films there was a lull in the cycle with no new territory being explored. And herein lies the problem with “Paid in Full”, which is largely a retread of themes and plot lines that ran through many of these earlier films. Just because we haven’t seen it in a few years doesn’t mean we don’t remember it. I found the content largely recycled with nothing much original to lend to the canon. I’m Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine.
More Information:
Paid In Full
USA - 2002