Paid in Full

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Paid in Full Movie Poster Image
Violent crime drama about drug dealer has constant cursing.
  • R
  • 2002
  • 97 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

No positive messages. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

No positive role models. 


Shooting deaths shown up close. Lead character brutally beaten, pistol-whipped, shot in the head. Characters shot in their beds at point-blank range. 


One of the lead characters shows a video of himself having sex with a woman to a large group of men at a party while bragging about his prowess in bed. Character shown looking at a pornographic magazine. 


Profanity in nearly every single line of dialogue. "N" word frequently used. "F--k" and variations frequently used. Also: "s--t," "d--k," "ass," damn." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lead characters are drug dealers. Bulk amounts of cocaine shown, bagged up for selling. Character briefly shown shooting heroin in the bathroom. Marijuana smoking. Alcohol drinking. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Paid in Full is a 2002 movie based on a true story about the rise and fall of a drug dealer in mid-1980s Harlem. There's profanity in nearly every line of dialogue: The "N" word, "motherf----r," and "f--k" are frequently used. In one scene, one of the characters at a party plays for his friends a video of him having sex with a woman. There's drug use -- cocaine and heroin -- and alcohol drinking, plus drug dealing scenes. Gun violence occurs: characters shot to death and at close range; a character shot in the head. Two women are shot and killed while tied up in bed. Fighting, punches, and kicks are also part of the violence. 

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What's the story?

It's the mid-1980s in Harlem, and Ace (Wood Harris) works at a laundromat, struggling to get by in PAID IN FULL. His friend Mitch (Mekhi Phifer), on the other hand, is bringing in lots of money as a drug dealer. Around the same time that Mitch and Calvin, another drug dealer, are caught and sent to prison, Ace befriends a man named Lulu, who convinces Ace to start dealing cocaine. Ace more than adequately fills the void left by Mitch and Calvin, and the money starts rolling in. When Mitch gets out of jail, they become even more successful, and they are joined by Rico, who ferociously defended Mitch in prison, thus earning his trust. But Ace's power begins to crumble when Calvin comes back and wants to regain his place on top, and Rico's violent and flamboyant methods attract the wrong kind of attention. Things take a huge turn for the worse when Calvin attempts to rob Ace at his Aunt June's apartment. Ace barely manages to survive the incident, and at the same time, Mitch's younger brother is kidnapped and held for ransom. Even though Ace is recovering and now wants out of the game, he must find out who is behind the kidnapping while not only going out on top, but staying alive. 

Is it any good?

The low-budget feel to the movie serves it well. It heightens the grit of the story and gives space to the talented actors to bring these characters to life. It makes up for overly familiar tropes: drug dealing as one of the only ways to be successful in the ghetto, the Goodfellas "looking back" voice-over. As Ace, Wood Harris brings the same low-key cool that helped make Avon Barksdale such an unforgettable character in The Wire. This space given to the actors allows each character to stand out and be memorable, no matter if they are central to the story or on the periphery. 

The time and place -- Harlem in the mid-'80s -- is brought to life in a way that feels real and not heavy-handed. When Mitch tries to teach his younger brother the fine art of caring for his new white tennis shoes and how to lace the shoelaces, for instance, it's worth more than a dozen obvious '80s pop culture references. The ascendance of rap and the ascendance of crack cocaine at the time are a part of the movie, but they don't overwhelm like they would in a movie less secure with the story itself. There's a lot of faith in the story and the actors in Paid in Full, a quality in movies, and it works. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about cursing in movies. Did the profanity in Paid in Full seem gratuitous, or did it seem like an attempt to realistically show how the characters from this time and place actually talked? 

  • Did the movie glamorize drug use and drug dealing, or were there consequences? 

  • Did the violence seem necessary to the story or did it seem gratuitous? 

Movie details

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