The 2002 murder of Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell.
…is not a true-crime story, really. Peacock’s three-part Kings From Queens, which dropped February 1, is an expertly crafted and extremely watchable docuseries, though, and the way it handles the shocking murder of Mizell could – and should – inform “traditional” genre material.
It’s also just really good! Kings From Queens traces vanguard rap group Run-D.M.C.’s formation and influence – childhood friends Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels growing up in Hollis, Queens; Run and D.M.C. tagging along with Run’s older brother Russell (yes, “that Russell Simmons,” a fact I always forget about!) to clubs; the pair finally getting a gig and realizing they couldn’t both rhyme without a DJ, which is where Mizell came in.
Mizell, already a legendary “scratcher,” also brought that signature Run-D.M.C. style: the “godfather” hat, the big chain, the Adidas gear. Director Kirk Fraser gets an impressive roster of hip-hop royalty – LL Cool J, MC Lyte, Chuck D, Ices Cube and -T, Questlove, and many more – to compile an oral history of the group’s achievements, plus there’s a ton of archival footage and contemporary photos from the mid-’80s.
Fraser is great at assembling and pacing the material, and just as good at knowing when to stay out of the way and let his subjects work their magic. They just do not make dudes more charismatic than Run-D.M.C. (although more than a few of the talking-head interviewees get close).
And the music, forget it. As I once said on Mark And Sarah Talk About Songs, “It’s Tricky” is so good, it makes me want to kick something. (When Beastie Boy Ad-Rock echoed Mark’s assertion from last season that Run-D.M.C. “made” Aerosmith with “Walk This Way,” I won’t lie, I felt validated.)
But staying out of the way doesn’t mean Fraser isn’t paying attention, and that’s where Kings From Queens gets even more interesting, for this true-crime consumer anyway. As I said, the docuseries isn’t a true-crime doc in the traditional sense; the crime that we would associate with it, Mizell’s murder, is not covered in a whodunnit way.
Possibly that’s because the case wasn’t adjudicated as of picture lock (as of this writing, the trial is just underway this week); possibly it’s because Run and D.M.C. are executive producers, and everyone felt that devoting too much time to Mizell’s murder and various allegations around it would cause further pain, to them and to Mizell’s widow and sons, who also participate in the doc.
And possibly it’s that Mizell’s death isn’t the point. It’s so easy, in a biography or cultural overview that contains a murder, to let the murder’s black hole of trauma pull everything else into it. In the true-crime genre, often, the end of a life is the beginning of the narrative, but if that isn’t what your property is about (and even if it is, let’s face it), keeping the violent end of a life from completely obscuring the story of the life is tough. Fraser balances it just right, acknowledging the murder and its outward ripples, but without letting it bend all the light of Run-D.M.C.’s genius toward it.
If you watched the installment of 30 For 30 Fraser made on the death of Len Bias, this won’t come as a surprise. There, too, Fraser had an ear for the life story of a subject whose death soon became the only thing we (thought we) knew about him. Without Bias and Kings From Queens might not qualify as true crime, strictly speaking – but they do what the most thoughtful and moving true-crime documentaries do, or try to: make space for the life, not just the death, and for the loss to other lives.
Kings isn’t about Mizell’s murder as a case, but as a part of Mizell’s larger story, and a part of his sons’ story, and of Run-D.M.C.’s. McDaniels, whose rhyming is just one of the ways he’s a born storyteller, relates that, as part of his grieving process, “for one whole year, all I did was listen to Sarah McLachlan records” (aw, my people) (McDaniels is also delightfully sweary; also my people!). Run says he knows he and Mizell will meet again, and seems almost to want whoever’s behind the camera to sign off on that belief. It’s affecting, and in its way, it’s “true-r” than the average streaming-doc fare – because Mizell’s death isn’t just a puzzle or a plot twist.
Every documentary project doesn’t have to take Fraser’s holistic approach, obviously; different frameworks have different objectives, and plot and puzzles have their places. But it’s a style I’d like to see more genre docs using, because it’s more about the living, in all the senses of that word.
True-crime coverage in your inbox
Subscribe to Best Evidence’s newsletter: