At the very least, Player Hating: A Love Story clarified for me the definition of player hating, which I thought, in my aggressive middle-class whiteness, to essentially describe a woman’s act of embarrassingly and outwardly rebuking a guy who’s normally adept at picking up the ladies. Certainly the phrase still carries that weight in other quarters, but in the world that director Maggie Hadleigh-West presents here, which is the Albany Projects in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, player hating is when someone envious of your success or prowess in hip-hop either talks shit about you in their own lyrics or tries to kill you.
That difference in perception underlines just how alien this world will seem to most residents of the middle class or above, regardless of how many times they’ve watched Menace II Society, or how many episodes of Law & Order or The Wire they’ve seen, because, unlike the practically unlivable third-world zones we guiltily feign interest in, a neighborhood like the one presented here is probably imperceptibly dangerous unless you’ve had direct experience working or living in it. Player Hating is one of the more intimate and revealing looks at American projects ever made; it’s assured and empathetic without indulging in fashionable white guilt.
This strikingly principled doc follows an aspiring hip-hop artist who calls himself Half-a-Mill as he and his various hangers-on attempt to generate interest in his recently completed album Milion, but that’s just a pretext that allows Hadleigh-West to show us this world. Much of Half-a-Mill’s behavior is familiar to the point of cliché, which is often why it’s so moving: You understand that he’s playing a role to distinguish himself among people who, beneath their vicious, profane, cocky veneer, are hopeless and scared out of their minds. The people interviewed here are often offensive in their unapologetically murderous self-absorption, as they’re indulging in the usual violent, booze and drug-addled misogynist fantasies and realities of aggressive domination that embody the worst tendencies of the music they worship. But Hadleigh-West holds the camera on them for often uncomfortably long stretches, which allows you to see their brutality as well as a fleetingly revealed vulnerability that doesn’t, somehow, sentimentalize the monstrous off-screen acts they’re clearly committing.
Half-a-Mill isn’t the most charismatic of the subjects captured here (there’s a terrifyingly matter-of-fact ex-con with gold-plated glasses who may or may not have startlingly murdered a friend near the end of the film), but he’s probably the most self-conscious and perceptive, and at one point he observes that his pursuits are just as a culturally ingrained as, say, someone who unquestionably works in an office nine-to-five everyday—an astute sentiment that haunts the rest of the film. Hadleigh-West clearly has the guts, not to mention the wiliness, of a potentially major filmmaker: She went to an everyday kind of purgatory and came out with a picture of cleansing humanity.