Hot Take: Somewhat entertaining mediocre movie about a drug dealer who falls in love and tries to get out of his old life.
Teri Woods was working at a law firm in Philadelphia in 1992 when she finished her first novel, True to the Game. Eager to publish, she submitted her work to publishers and was repeatedly rejected. Finally, in 1998, she self-published and hand delivered copies to local Philadelphia booksellers. This helped Woods launch Teri Woods Publishing and also made the urban fiction novel True to the Game a cult hit. Somehow, though, it took another 20 years for the film to make it to the cinema. The low budget adaptation has its ups and downs and never really achieves more than mediocrity but there are a lot of positive things to be said about a movie like True to the Game and how a movie with almost no marketing budget and a limited production budget can find its way to the big screen and likely turn a profit.
One of the more interesting qualities of True to the Game is its visual crispness. Set in Philadelphia, the film makes the most of long aerial shots of the city skyline that look like they were shot for use with the screensaver feature embedded in the Apple TV. The quality of all of the shots are very good with the filmmakers knowing their limitations and sticking to easy to execute shots that look high quality but were likely inexpensive to produce. The cast features a relatively unknown cast. The film stars Columbus Short whose biggest role prior to this film was starring in Save the Last Dance 2, a direct-to-video follow-up to the first film and Erica Peeples who had never been a film previously. Short plays Quadir, a Philadelphia kingpin who wants to desperately legitimize his businesses and get out of the drug dealing game. Peeples plays Gena, a young college girl who catches Quadir’s eye and accelerates his desire to get out of the game. The film also features two well known actresses in small roles as Vivica A. Fox and Draya Michele both have roles in the film. True to the Game is also the last role for Nelsan Ellis who died in July from alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Ellis was best known for his role as Lafayette in the HBO series True Blood.
True to the Game has all of the limitations of a low budget film. At times, the acting is stiff and the occasionally preachy side feels almost along the lines of the equally low budget faith-based films that have become more popular over the last few years. However, there’s enough twerking and gratuitous sex to keep you from ever confusing the two. The score sounds like it was made with Garage Band but then again, most hip hop music today is likely made that way, it’s not too far off from the current state of music production. In general, the film has a throwback feel to the direct-to-video drug game films of the late 90s and early 2000s which is no surprise since its likely the Woods’ novel was an inspiration for some of that work. It does, however, feel slightly out of place as it feels like we’ve moved away from this topic and even the drug films of the 2010s are more focused on cartels and the battle between the drug dealers and law enforcement. Hell, there isn’t one mention of police or even the sight of Philly’s finest on screen in the entire movie.
While True to the Game is an average film, it’s worth a look for its high quality despite an obvious low budget. If you’re in and around the Philadelphia area like me, it’s worth it for its usage of the flavor of the city while likely being shot on location in most instances. The film’s budget limitations become glaringly obvious which might be the overall downfall of the film but considering the film’s roots in a self-published novel that had a 6+ year journey to publication and started a movement in the world of urban fiction, it’s only fitting.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Philly Flavor
Obviously, the writer of the source material worked Philadelphia into the original novel and the film does the same. Not only does the film use shots of the city skyline, the condos at Penn’s Landing, the mansions on the Main Line and name-dropping key locations in the city that, if you’re familiar with Germantown and Broad Street, you understand why they might be mentioned in a film set in Philly about the drug game. It adds to the authenticity of the film.
- Nelsan Ellis, RIP
Gone too soon is Ellis who was great in True Blood as Lafayette and delivers one of the better performances in a very different role as Quadir’s #1 Tyrik. Ellis proves that he’s capable of doing something more subdued and leaves us wondering “What if?”
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Those Shootout Scenes
Every time someone fires a gun in True to the Game, it resembles something out of an off-Broadway play rather than a big screen movie. It could be cast’s limitations. It could be a budget thing. Either way, it comes across as silly and contrived.
- Late to the Game
This film would have been more relevant 10 years ago but it feels a little too retro for 2017. The source material is 20 years old but the film takes place now. Things have definitely changed and the film feels a little dated because of its efforts to stay close to the source.