How do the film’s varying portrayals of Black masculinity fuel the idolization of each of the three main characters?
Portrayals of Black Masculinity in Paid in Full
Paid in Full (2002) provides a uniquely in-depth portrayal of Black masculinity. In my research, I interrogate the question, How do the various portrayals between the three main characters exploit stereotypes and impact the audience members based on race? This topic has previously been studied in filmic representations of Black masculinity across various movies, including Paid in Full, as well as various articles on the real-life story it depicts. My key findings show that Paid in Full gave its audiences a fictionalized representation of a true narrative that portrays unrealistic expectations of Black masculinity and reinforces white stereotypes and biases while creating an unattainable goal for Black men. The film disrespects Black women and does not allocate space for Black women in defining Black masculinity. However, it is rare that a film creates such a vast definition with mobility and growth between the characters. This paper demonstrates the overall role Paid in Full had in creating a generational divide through its portrayals of Black masculinity.
Paid in Full, released in 2002 and directed by Charles Stone III, depicts one of the most famous crime stories in the history of Harlem. This film is centered on three Black men, who all depict Black masculinity ideals in their own rights and at different points throughout the film. Throughout this paper, I interrogate not only how Black masculinity is portrayed, but how do the varying portrayals fuel the idolization of each character in their respective scenes? Were stereotypes exploited in the process of trying to showcase multiple aspects of Black masculinity?
The story begins with three best friends, Azie (“AZ”) Faison, Rich Porter, and Alpo Martinez, renamed as Ace, Mitch, and Rico, respectively, who embark on a criminal enterprise which brings their loyalty to one another into question. The three characters, despite being united by their ties to the same neighborhood, each has a completely different background that has shaped their unique outlooks on life. Ace, a seemingly quiet yet beloved figure in the neighborhood is the stereotypical “good kid.” He works at a laundromat, behind the counter and delivering clothes (which is another reason why the neighborhood knows him so well). He is best friends with Mitch, who is the stereotypical Harlem hero. He too is loved in the neighborhood, but it isn’t because he was a passive, quiet kid. Mitch was smooth, with all of the latest cars and clothes, and a million-dollar smile. He was running a drug enterprise but you would never know that by talking with him. However, he is still willing to maintain his status in the neighborhood by force and isn’t afraid to be physical if the situation warrants violence. Their story really kicks off when Mitch is arrested, meeting Rico in prison. Rico earns Mitch’s trust by protecting him on the inside of the prison walls, in an effort to build a working relationship with him when they get out. While that’s happening, Ace’s sister’s boyfriend Calvin, another neighborhood drug dealer, is arrested. With neither Calvin nor Mitch running the drug game, Ace is recruited by a drug supplier to be his seller and take over the neighborhood. When Mitch and Rico get out of jail, he immediately enlists their help, while pushing Calvin to the sideline of his operation. As the story unfolds, Ace loses his family at the hands of Calvin, who is jealous, and survives being shot in the head, causing him to want out of the drug game. While Ace is in recovery, Mitch’s little brother, Sunny, whom he treated as a son, is kidnapped by his mother’s deadbeat boyfriend and is held for ransom. In an effort to pay the ransom, Mitch plans to sell a large amount of cocaine, given to him by Ace. When Rico hears of this plan, he kills Mitch in order to keep the drugs himself. Ace, knowing that Rico is behind Mitch’s murder, decides to work with the police and create a sting operation, resulting in Rico’s arrest. Earlier in the film, Ace found his supplier dead in his house, and found a case of diamonds, which he keeps for himself and uses to move out of Harlem at the end of the film.
The character that most embodies Black masculinity and is the person that people want to be like changes in different scenes. At certain points in the film, Ace exhibits the greatest wisdom in the group, and is courageous enough to walk away from the drug world due to his fatigue from the strain of illegal activities on his life. Mitch on the other hand, is seen at certain points throughout the film as the ultimate fly-guy hustler, the neighborhood hero that everyone wants to be. Lastly, Rico is the oversexualized, violent enforcer, the only one of the three we see in a sexual manner, and the one who is believed to be the toughest. Paid in Full serves as the center of the case study, and each scene, especially the ones of heightened importance, acts as the data set for analyzing themes of Black masculinity. From the dynamics displayed on screen from each individual character and in conversation with one another, Paid in Full shifts which character is idolized by the audience with their relationship to stereotypes surrounding Black masculinity.
Paid in Full is a film that has managed to remain culturally revered and relevant due to the story it was telling and the turning point it marked for visual hip-hop culture, a now global enterprise. Musicians have provided the most notable references to the film, however there are several important scholarly sources that provide the framework for an interrogation into Black masculinity portrayals in Paid in Full to be properly unpacked and digested.
For starters, Robin M. Boylorn interrogates the ways in which Black masculinity is “created, negotiated, and sustained in hip-hop cinema” in her article “From Boys to Men: Hip-hop, Hood Films and the Performance of Contemporary Black Masculinity.”1 It’s worth noting that this influence originates through the very inception of the film, being a Roc Nation production. Additionally, Eric B. and Rakim headline the soundtrack of the film, further connecting this story to its roots in hip-hop culture. While Boylorn does not directly implicate Paid in Full in her research, she does analyze similarly influential productions in that same genre over time. Paid in Full falls into an area where hip-hop was not the most rigid, but it was far from the progressive state that it is now. Boylorn asserts that “the fragility of Black masculine identity in film is implicated, though not invented, by hip-hop,” meaning in this case, the Black masculinity ideals portrayed in the film were not brand new.2 Rather, they were reinforced from previously established stereotypes and in-line with her analysis of other films released around that time. However, Paid in Full also diverges from the other classics that it is typically associated with because it is based on a true story. Thus, the emphasizing of certain ideals is grounded in a nonfiction setting that makes them more impactful in altering the audience’s perspective. The timing in which these films are released is also important to underscore, because the story of Paid in Full was not ready for the big screen when it was actually happening. It took a cultural shift for that to be marketable and ready to be portrayed in such a manner, but that also removes it further from its roots of the story and corrupts its overall depiction of the narrative.
Katharine Bausch, in “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism,” offers a perspective on three focused themes: “sexuality and its relationship with maturity, sexuality and violence, and sexuality and Black women.”3 These categories are uniquely important in Paid in Full because they are all underrepresented, and therefore, misrepresented. In other words, Black masculinity is portrayed in a way that detaches any connection to Black women in particular. There is no woman lead nor is there a love interest, however, there is a scene where Rico shows a video of himself having sex with a Black women to a large group of men, bragging about his performance. In a film that is based on a true story and carries the influence of an infamous hip-hop Harlem tale, it is very harmful to understate the role of Black women in supporting a healthy definition of Black masculinity. Black women are often depicted in harmful ways that portray negative definitions of Black masculinity and unfortunately, due to the climate of its predecessor films and overall popular culture, a lack of a representation falls more into that category than a healthy depiction. Bausch also highlights that, “Black men have always been a site for anxiety and imagination in American society,” a trope that Paid in Full dramatized and was rooted in throughout. She argues that Black men are overly scrutinized for their role in violent crime in different forms of media, which fuels those harmful portrayals. Paid in Full provides valuable commentary on that experience, as the story developed because of the strong pull of the life of crime in Harlem, starting (and ending) with Ace’s rejection of that lifestyle.
Keith M. Harris bridges an important gap between filmic Black masculinity, which is the idea that Black masculinity portrayed in film is unique and differs from social Black masculinity, which is the traditional interpersonal understanding. In Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and Popular Media, Harris breaks down the intersectionality of genre, gender, mode of production, aesthetics and other identifiers, all affecting how Black masculinity is portrayed in film. He highlights films and their respective intended audiences, which, in the case of Paid in Full, is complex. On the surface, the intended audience is African Americans and the film did a good job of creating a more dynamic portrayal of Black masculinity, even though certain stereotypes were exploited in the process due to the dramatization of the story. However, this Harlem fairytale was able to be brought on to the mainstream film scene because it contained marketability for white audiences that it didn’t have previously. Therefore, the reaction of white audiences is something that also needs to be unpacked, as their harmful biases towards African Americans are reinforced at times in this film.4
Crystal Belle’s “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez: Examining Representations of Black Masculinity in Mainstream versus Underground Hip-Hop Music” provides a vital understanding of how hip-hop culture grew in popularity, turning it into a visual culture. She investigates the question, “How do these representations affect the collective consciousness of Black men, while helping to construct a particular brand of masculinity that plays into the white imagination?”5 This is a lofty question and is an excellent one to ask in terms of Paid in Full. The characters, through their unique personalities, cast a wide blueprint of Black masculinity for Black men in the audience to align themselves with. However, this diversity comes at the expense of over-dramatized exaggerations of stereotypes that play into the toxic imagination of white audience members. The barrier of race in the film, which has almost no white characters, reinforces the common portrayals of drug-dealing, oversexualized, violent Black men, and any depth within the characters is lost. This is especially complicated and tested because of the label “based on a true story,” wherein both Black men and white people have even further reason to put their trust in what they see. Yet they come away with completely different understandings and changes to their collective consciousnesses triggered from this film. Ultimately, Paid in Full was a turning point in hip-hop culture, having this story told in a visual medium with a big platform amplifying it; it’s important not to understate the power of this film and the ways it influenced Black men and white people in the audience.
Methods and Data
Originating in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop grew to be a global enterprise, spectacle, and export going far beyond a specific sound coming through the speakers. Aside from the obvious growth of music videos as a form of visual hip-hop culture, there are several films that particularly stand out and underscore elements of hip-hop, growing revered reputations and finding their way back into the references of songs and cultural relevance, time and time again. Paid in Full is one of the most culturally impactful films in that subgenre and thus the subject of my case study. Specifically, I am looking at scenes in which Ace, Mitch and Rico all embody different aspects of Black masculinity. It’s important to distinguish that I am not looking for them to all be portraying something different in the same scene; rather I am looking at parts of the film where they each stand out for their individual portrayals of Black masculinity. This includes, but is not limited to, Ace’s introversion and resistance to the life of crime, Mitch’s neighborhood rockstar persona and all the traits needed to cultivate that reputation, and Rico’s hyperviolence and oversexualization. In these scenes, I look at how Paid in Full is not limited to one facet of Black masculinity, a trap that most films fall into. The film takes a non-traditional route of looking at these three different characters from an in-depth perspective, allowing them to step outside of the normal representations of Black masculinity, casting a wider net for the collective consciousness of Black men in the audience. That being said, it is irresponsible to not zoom out and acknowledge what white people took away from this film, being that it was a relatively mainstream production. These complexities are lost on the perception of white people and their focus remains on the tropes and stereotypes that have and continue to be present in filmic representations of Black men. It’s also worth noting that the film is based on a true story, but provides very little historical information that is necessary for the proper understanding of the environment in which the film takes place. There was no history of Harlem, drug dealing in New York City, ghettoization, gentrification, and policing; the whole film was focused on the narrative without contextualization. Lastly, it would be wrong not to mention the musical inspirations behind this case study, primarily Mysonne’s freestyle on Funk Flex’s radio show. That reinforced the scholarly sources and brought to light a new framework with which to analyze Paid in Full.
Paid in Full marks a transitional period in Black representation, hip-hop culture and popular culture as a whole. The very creation of the film is evidence that the story of Azie Faison, Rich Porter, and Alpo Martinez possessed potential marketability that was not previously present. In other words, popular culture had been warmed up into accepting this narrative into the big screen and embracing it wholeheartedly. This newfound marketability allowed for the history to be distorted and subsequently misrepresented in such a way that placed unrealistic expectations rooted in stereotypes and racist tropes onto the portrayal of a true story. In doing so, the crucial facts of the narrative, which belong to the previous generation, were drowned out in order to make the story more mainstream. This also allowed for certain crimes and toxicity to be glorified, as they had no contextualization and therefore no understanding of the outside circumstances in Harlem during this time period. White people are then led to further associate Black masculinity with their stereotypes, and Black men are given a fictionally based definition of Black masculinity, presented as facts, designed for them to pursue and yet fall short of. Black women are almost entirely left out of the film, which further distances what it means to be a Black man with how a Black woman should be treated, respected and recognized.
What the film also fails to illustrate is that Azie Faison, Rich Porter and Alpo Martinez were doing what they needed to do to survive. This is subtly stated by Ace working at a laundromat but not making any “real money” versus Mitch who was dealing drugs and able to sustain a much more lavish lifestyle. However, drug dealing is seemingly the only option for the residents of Harlem to achieve that flashy lifestyle without any explanation for why that is. This has the potential to make it seem as though these characters, based on real people, chose to be drug dealers because of the possible rewards. The influence this has on its audience members is significant because white people, who already have their predispositions of Black people, will think that this is evidence to reinforce those beliefs. Black people will see the allure of the life of crime, not recognizing the consequences but more importantly, the limited options otherwise that boxed these people into the life of crime, and how those barriers are still ever present. Commentary surrounding these dynamics to dispel those beliefs and harmful understandings is necessary in order to responsibly reflect Black masculinity in this film.
Additionally, as Mysonne highlights in his freestyle, the codes of the streets were misconstrued with Paid in Full as the turning point. This may sound like an abstract concept that a mainstream film cannot be responsible for, but he argues:
“The game is fucked up cause the lines got distorted. It all started when the snitches got glorified, when they ain’t kill Alpo after Rich Porter died . . . See y’all decided that this fake shit was real when snitches came home and y’all embracing them stil . . . Trappers that I know are getting arrested cause of rats, sentenced to life and they ain’t never coming back. These rappers telling you lies . . . They ain’t real, you can tell by they eyes and they ain’t telling their stories, they’re telling you mine! I got seven years up north for armed robbery and I realized the so-called “gangsters” lied to me. The preachers couldn’t save us, the teachers couldn’t teach us, the streets had to raise us . . . The moral of the story is stop chasing the glory, my youngin’s 16 on the Island facing 40 . . . To the real G’s, it’s time to raise these shorties and to the kids that I mislead I just want to say that I’m sorry.”6
This passage of his freestyle is so impactful because he voices how he partook in the activities portrayed in Paid in Full but it was because he was lied to by the previous generation, causing him to lie to the generation after him. The truth is that the stories that are retold through artistic mediums commodified in popular culture belong to him and others with similar experiences, but not those doing the retelling. They are claiming that history for a sense of glory without acknowledging the price the real people in those narratives had to pay and their overall suffering because of that lifestyle.
Based on the data I collected through closely watching certain scenes in Paid in Full, as well as understanding the culture around the movie, the scholarly articles previously mentioned and the popular culture references on this topic, there are several key takeaways I gathered. For starters, the intersection of Capitalism and the entertainment industry, specifically as it pertains to Black culture needs to be held responsible. Paid in Full shares unique properties with blaxploitation films but is in a separate category because of its “based on a true story” labeling. While it may not be extreme to the point of being labeled propaganda, there are similarities with how they are designed to influence their audiences and corrupt their collective and respective consciousness depending on the demographic of the viewer. The stereotypes that are portrayed are significantly reinforced despite not being as overt as a typically blaxploitation film. This also underscores the ways in which fictionalizing a true story away from its context rewrites history. In this case, a false set of standards and norms of Black masculinity are set for Black men to fall short of but also for the next generation to grow up under. The true narratives are ripped away from those who actually bore the consequences and are instead glamorized by businessmen looking to commodify those stories in a way that turns a profit. The kids watching that happen see only the lights, glamour and action and aim to emulate that without knowing the possible consequences and are subjected to that same suffering, unable to break the patterns of a previous generation.
Paid in Full is one of the most infamous stories in hip-hop history and continues to maintain its cultural relevance, which can set it apart from other films that are typically mentioned alongside it. This story is responsible for a generational divide in a way that other stories aren’t, because it quite literally showcases money being made on stories that don’t belong to that group of people, at the end of the film. There is also a leniency given to Ace who violated the street code by snitching on Rico, which has resurfaced as a hot-topic issue with people like Bobby Shmurda and 6ix9ine. Ace did not need to snitch on Rico in order to get the happy ending that he received, and yet did it anyway and was applauded for it. The previous generation believes that he should have been publicly condemned for doing that and holds this case study responsible for the different, unmanned dynamics of the younger generation in the criminal enterprises.
Lastly, although this paper may come off as a harsh critique, Paid in Full deserves some positive recognition outside of the traditional movie critiques. Taking on the task of bringing this infamous story to the big screen can be a daunting task, and they were able to assemble an outstanding cast and crew. Between the production teams, director, actors, soundtrack and more, they did a great job of encapsulating certain aspects of the story and Harlem as a whole. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the sake of this case study, Ace, Mitch, and Rico were multidimensional Black men in a major Hollywood production. They were not constricted to any one label, unlike other blaxploitation movies in particular and personally grew over time, in a coming-of-age fashion. Within their unique personalities were individualized portrayals of Black masculinity that created a wider, more expansive definition unlike films with a more narrow, stereotypical depiction. There is no denying that Paid in Full has its flaws, however these are valuable depictions in the world of cinema, hip-hop culture, and mainstream Hollywood and should be appreciated as such.
My contribution to this field of study is bridging a gap that exists between scholarly articles that touch upon the subject but neglect to give Paid in Full its proper mentioning for the various roles it has played. It’s significance is higher in popular culture and in the world within hip-hop, but is not recognized in the academic spaces with the regard that it should be. The future of this work would be to see the direct ways in which people have been affected by these portrayals and this story as a whole. If I were to continue writing about this subject, I would talk about how the glorification of snitches and materialism has gotten to an all-time high in hip-hop, using the last scene of Paid in Full as the launching point. Limitations also exist in this analysis, as I only mentioned one film and did not directly compare it to another film. That would require a longer study and take a slightly different direction than the one I had intended of going in.
- Robin M. Boylorn, “From Boys to Men: Hip-hop, Hood Films and the Performance of Contemporary Black Masculinity,” Black Camera 8, no. 2 (2017): 146-164.
- Boylorn, “From Boys to Men.”
- Katharine Bausch, “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism,” The Journal of Popular Culture 46, no. 2 (2013), 257.
- Keith M. Harris, Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and Popular Media (Routledge, 2002).
- Crystal Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez: Examining Representations of Black Masculinity in Mainstream versus Underground Hip-Hop Music,” Journal of Black Studies 45, no. 4 (May 2014): 287–300.
- “Mysonne Freestyles on Flex | Freestyle #046,” Hot97, February 2017.