Circa 1977, The Bronx was a war zone. In the midst of a community characterized by drugs that permeated nightlife, gangs that lurked even in broad daylight and poor infrastructure that set the poverty-stricken borough ablaze, a ghetto let out its piercing cry and hip-hop was born.
Renowned film director Baz Luhrmann—whose lily-white background initially drew feelings of skepticism when we heard about his working project centered on The Bronx during a culturally significant era—cracks open the vault of hip-hop’s birthplace in his Netflix original The Get Down, a fictional series that chronicles hip-hop’s first steps through the eyes of South Bronx teens Ezekiel Figuero (Justice Smith) and Kipling brothers Dizzee (Jaden Smith), Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) and Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.).
Ezekiel’s pen game is mighty, but the lovesick poet isn’t ready to use his riveting voice to influence his community just yet. He has a more pressing matter on his mind—to make Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) his girl. Mylene, unlike her aspiring boyfriend, is laser-focused on crossing the East River in hopes of becoming a disco singer like her idol Misty Holloway, even if her father is a radical pastor who is hell-bent on slaughtering her dream. South Bronx political champion Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits), on the other hand, is set on flipping the humdrum narrative of urban youth like his niece, Mylene, in an untwisted agenda rooted in rejuvenating his home base.
While Ezekiel is Mylene’s biggest supporter, he isn’t too fond of her master plan to get her demo in the hands of DJ Malibu at popular nightspot Les Inferno. In a grand demonstration of love, however, he concedes into doing everything in his power to see her win a dance contest that will set her goal in motion.
In the late ’70s, Bronx teens weren’t afraid to fight—or kill—to get their hands on a sought-after record. Ezekiel boldly enters this ring on Mylene’s behalf, putting his life in danger while simultaneously pivoting toward his destiny. After crossing paths with the elusive Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) during his tumultuous mission, Ezekiel and his crew of best friends are thrust into the world of the The Get Down, where breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing collide. When the wordsmith blesses the mic for the first time, what happens next will not only shift the future of The Bronx, but will revolutionize the entire world.
Several factors play into the authenticity of The Get Down. To start, over half of the film was shot directly on the streets of the Boogie Down, but beyond the surface, Luhrmann relied heavily on hip-hop pioneers like DJ Kool Herc and DJ Grandmaster Flash to guide him as he maneuvered through disco’s fleeting reign that gave way to hip-hop’s inevitable trek from the underground to center stage. His collaboration with executive producer Nas is also a winning move that pours through Ezekiel, considering the rap heavyweight is the mastermind behind the protagonist’s original bars and verses of poetry.
What’s most transparent, yet refreshing is the director’s decision to recruit raw talent for the project such as Harlem teen Tremaine Brown Jr.(Boo-Boo), 15, who he discovered rapping on the subway. These fresh faces may be breaking new ground on the small screen, but they aren’t amateurs at their craft. Skylan Brooks’ (Ra-Ra) comedic timing is first class, Herizen Guardiola’s (Mylene) powerhouse vocals command full attention, and Justice Smith’s (Ezekiel) A1 delivery warrants a second listen, because you’ll probably drown him out with finger snaps the first time.
If The Get Down premiere is a trustworthy indication of what’s to come as the series unfolds, then it promises to leave a lasting impression on its audience much like its muse, hip-hop, did on the world. Taking the story of rap culture’s elementary years to the masses may be long overdue, but it’s a tale that never loses value much like the timeless records it gave us.
The Get Down will make its Netflix debut on Friday, Aug. 12.