At this point, Ava DuVernay is a household name, having directed such films as Selma, 13th and A Wrinkle in Time. So I was surprised to learn recently that I heard DuVernay's voice long before I ever saw her movies. It was on a 1995 album called Project Blowed, when she appeared on a track called "Don't Get it Twisted" with her hip-hop duo Figures of Speech.
Figures of Speech sprung from a fertile group of rappers and DJs that coalesced around the Good Life Cafe, a health food restaurant in Los Angeles that held weekly open mics attracting the city's underground hip-hop talent. The songs, stories and synergy of the Good Life are at the center of one of DuVernay's earliest documentaries, This Is The Life, which has finally just hit Netflix.
The Good Life's era spanned the 1990s, and its syncopated, jazzy and uber-lyrical music stood as a foil to popular street-oriented artists of the day like Dr. Dre and N.W.A. Hip-hop obsessives watching the film will find gold here—early footage of artists like Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5 and C.V.E.; backyard parties; rappers breaking the cafe's rule of no swearing on the mic; and fond, funny remembrances by those who were there.
But even a casual viewer of This is the Life will get a sense of something bigger: namely, the way great art can grow and cross-pollinate in a tight-knit scene. The tiny cafe packed in men and women from an array of racial and religious backgrounds, and the ripple effect (on national groups like Outkast and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) is an object lesson in the power of a diverse community working together.