The Albany Housing Projects in Brooklyn, N.Y., erected between 1950 and 1957, are considered one of the most volatile living environments in the United States. Rapt with gang violence and drug wars, it’s a place that can easily consume those willing to survive by any means. It’s also a place where creativity can be a key to moving out, and Maggie Hadleigh-West’s Player Hating: A Love Story portrays the stark realities of life under these circumstances. She immerses herself and the audience in a world that is constantly replicated in fiction but rarely explored through a true sociological lens.
Following the rise of hip-hop artist Half-a-Mill (aka Jasun Wardlaw), Hadleigh-West never glorifies or trivializes the challenges these inhabitants face. Combating poverty and police brutality, violence is often the only option for survival, but it can also serve as a means to fast upward mobility. In a culture that focuses on a “get rich or die trying” mentality, the common misconception about lower-income living is that violence is committed solely for the whims of wealth. In reality, many inhabitants are merely trying to support themselves and their families, and if robbing is the only option, then they will do so.
Ascending from the projects is a dream of many, and some of the most prominent hip-hop artists to populate our culture in the last 30 years have come from similar places. Half-a-Mill and his crew are as close as any family, and they are drawn together by their singular love of music. We follow the artist as he produces his album and builds upon his fanbase. He’s a figure that’s loved and highly regarded within both his community and his crew, and his aspirations are the catalyst for his successes.
What’s interesting about Player Hating is the silver lining that permeates every success that Half-a-Mill experiences. There’s a true sense of duality that both celebrates and plagues the crew’s livelihood. As tight-knit as Albany’s inhabitants are, they are willing to sacrifice one another for the sake of survival or even pride (as it is one of the greatest definers of one’s character). For every CD sale that Half-a-Mill makes, there lies the constant threat of bootleggers that compromise the validity of his work. For every honest attempt to earn legitimately, the stigma of inner-city life constantly bears down on the community.
In a culture that emphasizes a “get rich or die trying” mentality, there’s sure to be followers of that mantra. With drug abuse and gang violence rampant, the Albany Housing Projects are populated with their fair share of detractors and antagonists. But Half-a-Mill, his crew, his family and many other inhabitants are merely survivors trying to dictate the direction of their lives. Their reality is stark, as death is a random but unavoidable circumstance they face, but their dreams are what help them navigate their daily trials.
Hadleigh-West obviously respects the persons she studies, but there’s an affection that’s undeniable. There are moments of touching honesty that delineate any stereotypes that have been drawn about those living under harsh circumstances. She wants them to survive, and we as an audience are genuinely pained by their failure and tragedies. For all of the film’s stark examinations, Hadleigh-West never questions the determination of those who work hard to survive, presenting the plight of people like Half-a-Mill with both objectivity and hopeful optimism.
As a document of a victimized society, Player Hating is an important piece of documentary filmmaking. It’s a statement and a testament to those who merely live to survive, and it reinforces a stark duality that emphasizes the harsh realities that perturb the dreams of those under these circumstances.