In one of the black neighbourhoods of Chicago, August (Khalil Everage) Laz (Evan J Simpson) and Niyah (Ashley Jackson) are hanging about and goofing around after dark. August’s Mother (Uzo Aduba) calls him for dinner, not realising he is out. She tells his older sister, Kari (Megan Sousa) to go and find him.
August is urinating on a building as Laz films it because the three want to disrespect the youths of that part of the neighbourhood. When some of those same youths come across them, the three are forced to flee to their own part of the neighbourhood.
They arrive back and run to Vern (Jeremy Phillips) who is hanging on the streets with some of his crew. His mere presence deters the chasing horde and they retreat back to their own neighbourhood.
Kari finds August and tells him to come home. She warns him about hanging out on the streets, worried that he will die out there. Both are into and make music, they talk about beats as they walk back home. As Kari turns to August to make a point, she is shot and killed, the bullet passing through her hitting August in the chest.
Eighteen months later, August is still making music but he never leaves his home. His mother does not allow him to leave the house, afraid he might get shot and killed like his sister before him. August also suffers panic attacks ever since the shooting and is anxious around crowds.
At August’s school, The principal, Vanessa Robinson (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is trying to keep her school safe, not at all ably assisted by her estranged husband, Romelo Reese (Anthony Anderson), a failed music producer forced to work as a security guard at the school to make ends meet. Robinson addresses the teachers in a meeting and tells them they need to get students into their classrooms, as it affects the budget allocated by the state.
After the meeting is concluded, Robinson and Reese talk. He wants to borrow money. He already owes her money, but she says she will give him the money if he can get five students to return to school. Reese agrees. As he goes to the various homes of absentee students, he meets August mother.
While speaking with her, as she refuses to let him go to school, he hears August’s music. Reese sneaks into August’s room to try and speak with him, but August freaks out. His mother comes into the room and orders Reese out.
Robinson calls Reese into her office. August’s mother has lodged a complaint. Robinson, knowing Reese’s desperation to get back into music, is not impressed. Reese says he is not going get back into music. The next day he goes to see August, making sure his mother is not in. Reese slowly gains August trust, introducing him to different musical styles. They always meet when his mother is at work.
Though August finds solace in music, he still continues to have episodes of anxiety and panic, nearly burning the apartment down when remembering his sister cooking lunch for him. His mother, the sole breadwinner, also suffers her own mental torment, obsessively watching news broadcast of the shootings that afflict the neighbourhood.
Robinson gives Reese divorce papers. He does not want to sign them, wanting to reconcile. She does not want that. Reese continues to work with August on his music. Reese goes to meet an old music acquaintance, Terence (Paul Walter Hauser). Terence is big in the music business, but Reese was the person who got him his break. Terence gives him short shrift, telling him to chat to him when he has a demo.
Reese goes to see Mister Ford, (Dave East) as he needs a rapper for the track that August is producing. Ford and Reese have some history, as it seems Reese does with all of the music movers and shakers. Ford is a little cold with him. Reese promises that this time around it will be different.
August tells Reese about his panic attacks and why he never leaves the house. Reese finds out he fancies Niyah, watching her walk to and from school at the same time every day. Reese finds a rapper through Ford, Queen Cabrini (Seandrea ‘Dreezy’ Sledge). Reese finds that August has written a song for Niyah. He persuades him to lay it down and give it to her on a CD.
Reese takes the track to Ford and they record with Queen Cabrini. Reese takes August out of his home to go and deliver the CD. He then takes him to a musical instrument store. Reese goes to see Terence, asking him to feature Queen Cabrini, with August’s track, in an upcoming show. He lies to Robinson, telling her he wants to borrow her car so as he can do some Uber work and win her back. He takes August and Niyah to the show.
August mother returns home early from work and finds him gone. She calls the police. Reese returns to see the police cars. August’s mother freaks out when she sees him and attacks Reese. He gets arrested and the next day is bailed out by a furious Robinson.
Reese’s problems continue to mount when Ford and Terence cut him out of the music deal. A drunken Reese goes to see Robinson, proclaiming his continuing love for her. She tells him there will be no reconciliation. Realising she will not change her mind, he signs the divorce papers.
Reese gets August a deal with Terence, telling him that the deal is good. After August signs, Reese has a change of heart and torches the deal. August’s mother is furious, especially when she hears Reese was given forty thousand dollars to bring August in. Terence tells Reese that he will destroy him. August freaks out and runs off.
August’s mother is distraught, not knowing where her son is. Reese finds him and August confesses that he thinks he is to blame for everything. He feels not only guilty about his mother’s situation but also for his sister’s death. Reese tells him that he is not to blame. He takes August back to his mother.
Two months later, August returns to school. Principal Robinson is happy to see him. He is still making music with Reese. August approaches Niyah at school. She is happy to see him but hides it, waiting for him to speak. The end.
Beats, written by Miles Orion Feldsott and directed by Chris Robinson, is a film caught between genres. Following on from the success of programmes like Power, Star and most notably, Empire, Beats uses ghetto gang culture and hip hop, rap and beats as the background of the story. What is unusual is the central story of August. Though he is affected by the streets and embraces the music of the streets, his anxiety keeps from them.
Along with his mother’s slightly misguided attempts to keep him off the streets, August is effectively shielded from the life that inadvertently took his sister. His life, though safe, is no longer full. With no interaction with the outside world, August is forced to live in a world of beats and rhythms, with only his voyeurism an outlet to the world.
Reese’s intervention, even though it is initially selfish, saves August. Reese becomes August’s conduit and guardian in a world as cutthroat and unforgiving as the streets his mother struggles to shield him from.
The acting is top draw across the board, with Khalil Everage standout as the traumatised August. Chris Robinson employs some great shot selection and edits to elicit the necessary emotion in the film. From the immersive shots of August lost in music to his mind shifts when he sees his departed sister in his mind.
The script is street speak with clarity, the context of every word made easily apparent. Every character has a very distinct voice and character. Even the minor characters are easily recognisable from life of the streets and the hustle.
The film glides smoothly through its one hundred runtime, with no scenes unnecessary or forced. The music is good without dominating proceedings, more of an extra character in the film. Beats is a good film and approaches the well-worn path of life for black youths on the streets in a slightly different way. Beats, if you are a fan of music, is definitely worth one hundred minutes of your time.