20 Years Later, Carmen: A Hip Hopera Is A Messy & Ridiculous Timeless Classic

Photo: New Line/Photofest.
Beyoncé in 2001's Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
Gone are the days of boy-band induced hysteria in Times Square outside of MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL for the real ones) and stunt tours packed with the bold-faced names of the early 2000s like Nelly, Eve, Jessica Simpson, 3LW, Dream and headliners Destiny’s Child on the same bill. We’ll probably never see Mariah Carey casually drop by a studio during a live taping or watch a python straddle Britney Spears’ shoulders while she bends time and space with the sheer force of her swagger. But mostly, we’ll never catch Beyoncé slipping ever again. 
Twenty years ago on May 8, 2001, the baby-faced lead singer of the biggest girl group in the world made her film acting debut in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera in the titular role at 19 years old. The movie musical — a reimagining of the 1875 opera, Carmen, from French composer Georges Bizet, and its subsequent all-Black Broadway adaptation, Carmen Jones — was a big event. It brought together the who’s who of rap royalty of the era: Jermaine Dupri, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), Da Brat, Wyclef Jean, Rah Digga and Lil Bow Wow. What a time. Playing opposite Bey as Sgt. Derek Hill was none other than early aughts heartthrob, an Internet Boyfriend before Internet Boyfriends, the inimitable Mekhi Phifer who proved he has mad skills on the mic as well as in a monologue. But all of that couldn’t save Carmen: A Hip Hopera from an uneven script, mediocre reviews and takes from pundits who attested that Bey should stick to singing
Advertisement

This is some of the messiest and horniest work Beyoncé has ever given us and we’ll never get the chance to see her as unpolished, or as problematic again. 

Listen, we don’t speak ill of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, first of her name, in this house. We at Team Unbothered, like good commoners and card-carrying members of the Beyhive, bow down to our Queen Bey and her unmatched excellence. Long may she reign. However, we also like to keep it real. And anyone who worships at the altar of Beyoncé knows that she has exactly one weakness: her inability to disappear into a role or deliver an acting performance half as good as anything she gives us on stage. And that’s OK. Queen Bey has given us so much. It’s truly the least she can do to show us that she isn’t perfect at everything — and since she doesn’t do that anymore, Carmen is one of the few examples we have left of pre-perfectionist “until I see some of my notes applied, it doesn’t make sense for me to make more” Beyoncé. But that doesn’t mean she’s terrible in this movie. Remember, it was her acting debut. Director Robert Townsend (B*A*P*S, The Five Heartbeats) told VIBE that he had to “fight” MTV execs for Bey to be considered for the role and sang her praises throughout the press tour. “There are certain people who have never acted that don’t want to look stupid,” Townsend said to the LA Times. “But Beyoncé was willing to step up and play. She has really good instincts, and was really comfortable in front of the camera.”
That comfort (which is most evident in the scenes with Carmen’s best friends Rasheeda and Nikki played by Rah Digga and Joy Bryant proving that Beyoncé wasn’t exactly ready to go solo yet) and willingness to “look stupid” is why Carmen: A Hip Hopera is such a gem. There’s a raw quality to Bey’s performance — from her hesitant flirting to confidently dropping bars on bars — that acts as a time capsule of a superstar before her prime, and a glimpse of her future as the greatest rapper of our generation. I said what I said. As much as there are flashes of brilliance in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, there is also the mess. 
Advertisement
Carmen, the character, is messy as hell. When we first meet her, she’s hitting on a man in front of his girlfriend and proving the Jezebel stereotype that plagues Black women in pop culture was alive and well in 2001 (while Missy Elliott served as a producer on the film, it was mostly helmed by men). The entire plot revolves around us rooting for Carmen’s relationship with Hill (Phifer) and the night they met he was still engaged to someone else. But Carmen, as Hill boasts in a rhyme (written by Sekani Williams, music by Kip Collins), is anything but common and her ambition to be a Hollywood actress outweighs her love for Hill, even though the man went to prison for her. She moves on quickly to a rapper named Blaze (Leroy Casey) before meeting a tragic fate at the hands of egomaniacal men (spoilers don’t count two decades later!). Throughout, she uses seduction and success as her motivations until both prove to be her downfall. This is some of the messiest and horniest work Beyoncé has ever given us and we’ll never get the chance to see her as unpolished, or as problematic again. 
With the clarity of hindsight and 2021 vision, you could read Carmen: A Hip Hopera as an anti-police, prison abolitionist manifesto (free Bow Wow!), or as a reductive tale of gold diggers and homewreckers, or as a remake ahead of its time which paved the way for another “hip hopera” which changed Broadway forever (I’m not saying Carmen crip-walked so Hamilton could run but I’m also not not saying that), or you could just have some fun with it. Here, some of our very own bold-faced names of Team Unbothered revisit the 2001 classic and share their unfiltered thoughts. Beygency, please forgive us. 
Advertisement
Laurise McMillian, Content Strategy Editor & Head of Social
It made for such a fun girls night but I felt like I was watching narrative porn in the beginning. Softcore porn! I was like holy shit, Bey. And the plot was like what the fuck? When did [Carmen and Hill] fall in love? They knew each other for two seconds. There was a moment when Beyoncé cooked breakfast and I was like, which frat bro wrote this fantasy in here? It was definitelllllllyyyy directed by a man. So ridiculous. 

There was a moment when Beyoncé cooked breakfast and I was like, which frat bro wrote this fantasy?

Laurise McMillian
The positives: Joy Bryant is fucking HOTTT. And the acting was good if it was indeed that. Mekhi Phifer carried the whole film, but nobody is surprised. Wait, I forgot about MOS DEF. I take it back. He carried the film. He was his normal nonchalant self but as usual it worked. Beyonce in low-rider jeans was an amazing moment. No wonder they’re coming back. I loved seeing Rah Digga and Joy Bryant take Blaze’s money and tear up L.A.! Very hot girl summer energy. Lil Bow Wow in jail had me in tears laughing. 
Ineye Komonibo, Entertainment Writer 
Watching this 20 years later, it's so cringe LMAO. I keep wondering if Beyoncé looks back at these days when she was so much more out there as a young person and gets embarrassed. Or is she like, "Yeah, I did that!" Also, Beyoncé really has been THEE lyricist forever. She didn't write her lyrics obviously, but our girl has been nice with the flow for a very long time. 
Advertisement

Carmen: A Hip Hopera is a reminder that Beyoncé has been about the culture since she first hit the scene.

Ineye Komonibo
Finally, even though the movie isn't talked about as much (given the cringe-factor, I low-key understand why), Carmen: A Hip Hopera is a reminder that Beyoncé really has been about the culture since she first hit the scene. This is a Black production through and through, and she was at the center of it all — just like she's always been.
Chelsea Sanders - VP
Ok first of all, where did our star-studded movies go? Mekhi Phifer. Mos Def. Wyclef. Da Brat. Joy Bryant. Bow Wow when he was still ‘Lil. This movie is packed with every early aughts Black star they could find — this is lyrical history, people. While we’re giving out flowers, we need to give Robert Townsend all of them because he directed all the classics of my adolescence – this masterpiece, B.A.P.S., The Five Heartbeats! He knows exactly what he’s doing with this musical journey with Queen Bey. Even though I have some notes on Beyoncé’s  acting, this movie was crafted around her, as it should be.  

Let’s also give a moment for Beyoncé’s range in this classic, because we already know she’s serving House of Dereon meets Crossroads looks.

Chelsea Sanders
Let’s also give a moment for Beyoncé’s range in this classic, because we already know she’s serving House of Dereon meets Crossroads (another classic) looks. That range more than makes up for the mid-tier budget MTV gave this. Rapping Beyoncé is arguably my favourite Beyoncé and she’s giving me all the "Top Off,” “Feeling Myself,” “Upgrade U” energy we need. By the end of this viewing, I’m convinced Carmen is in the top two Bey, the rapper moments and it ain’t number two. 
Advertisement
Everything about this plot is problematic, but that honestly made it easier to not get caught up in the details of what’s actually going on. Save for Carmen’s “where them dollars at?” attitude, we can leave the rest of this reductive Jezebel-turned-tame-housewife-with-big -dreams-she-can-only-achieve-by-scheming narrative behind. Also, we all know Beyonce doesn’t cook, so this is truly a work of (highly entertaining) fiction. We can thank Da Brat’s rhinestone durag for that. Signing off, Chelsea "Curves Like a Cul de Sac" Sanders. 
Brooke Obie, Deputy Director
I tried watching Carmen. I really tried. it's so bad! It's SO bad. The whole cast deserved better than those corny lyrics. Also the plot is nonsense. Why would aiding Carmen who committed a petty misdemeanour at best result in prison time for Mekhi Phifer? Nonsense. That was where I cut it off. I would love a remake starring Chloe Bailey with bars written by Beyoncé's team. But that's from about 15 minutes of watching. That was all I could take. Love you, Bey!


The plot is nonsense.

brooke obie
Sydney Clarke - 2030 Fellow
I didn't know Carmen: A Hip Opera existed until... last week. I felt like I was transported to another world while watching it. The low-rise jeans that sit right above everyone's butt crack, Beyonce's constant hair changes and the surprising bar scuffle at the beginning were just the start. Cops are still crooked and doggish like Lt. Miller (Mos Def), while Hill spent his time being crazy in love (I had to) with Carmen who seemingly popped up out of nowhere in her  red dress. 
Advertisement
When Carmen auditions in California, the casting director asks her to be “more urban, more Black” and Carmen responds with utter confusion, as she should, because being Black is not a monolith. This scene brought up memories of my childhood being told I wasn’t Black enough or I spoke like a white girl which left me feeling distanced from the capital B, capital E, Black Experience. It reminded me that sometimes the dreams we want for ourselves are guarded by the most out of touch gatekeepers who are there because of convenience and oftentimes because of their race. 

Throughout the movie, I thought Carmen was the worst and the root of all the trouble that unfolded, but at some point I was rooting for her.

Sydney Clarke
Throughout the movie, I thought Carmen was the worst and root of all the trouble that unfolded, but at some point I was rooting for her. When she realized her relationship with Hill wasn’t working, she removed herself from it. She took the results of her spiritual reading (shoutout to our colleague Stephanie Long and her tarot reading piece, because clearly Black girls were in love with mysticism in 2001) and made a move that would put her in a position to live life instead of scrape by and survive with what little time she had left. 
To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the music a lot. Everyone understood the musical assignment and delivered. Hopefully, this summer I can channel some of the Black Girl Magic Rasheeda, Nikki, and Carmen had because they were an example of true friends. They built each other up and I loved seeing that play out. They remind me of my girlfriends and the bond I have with them, knowing that I can go to them to build me up, make me smile, and keep it real with me when I need a reality check.
Advertisement
Sandy Pierre, Branded Execution Specialist
My initial thoughts when it first started was wow this is kinda bad. The transitions into different scenes were as basic as can be, but then I remembered it was made in 2001. As I got into it, I started feeling it. As annoying as Mos Def was, he spit the best lyrics. It was a vibe! I also totally forgot Mekhi Phifer could low-key rap. 


I guess hoes deserve to be happy too.

Sandy Pierre
Now, let’s get into Carmen. She confused me a bit. She started out as being this promiscuous girl going after people’s men then she fell in love with Hill. I guess hoes deserve to be happy too and in the end she only cared about her career (which she wasn’t good at) Also when she wanted him to break his parole to be with her, that was screaming toxic! He also grew somewhat of an obsession with her that wasn’t healthy. My man Hill was going crazy! I want my man to love me but I don’t know about that much, where it becomes a little scary. Bey and Wyclef singing “The Cards Never Lie” was my favourite song back then and it still hit the same. But the music scene she did with her friends in her apartment was horrible!!! Overall, I wasn’t mad at it. It was definitely a ghetto Hollywood love story.

More from Movies