Reel rappers

Kyle Smith

From his biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’, it’s clear that 50 Cent has fallen into the trap that has claimed so many of his cred-hungry brethren.

For his proper introduction into the mainstream, on 1,500-plus screens (as if selling 11 million copies of the album by the same name wasn’t enough), 50 wants it both ways – gangsta gangsta and father father. One awkward scene has 50 sitting at a restaurant with a girl from the right side of the tracks and some of his friends. She asks what he does; 50 says, “I’m a gangster.” He and his crew laugh knowingly. The girl, dubious, asks the same question; 50 replies, “I’m a rapper.” She doesn’t believe that either, so she asks again; 50 now says, “I’m a gangster rapper.”

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is a movie about indecision, and as 50’s character, Marcus, flip-flops about his profession, one senses the real-life 50 can’t decide what to do with his image. The template for the film is 2002’s wildly successful 8 Mile, which erased joyous memories of Cool as Ice by casting a struggling white rapper (Eminem) as a conflicted, angry Detroit man who has friends who accidentally shoot themselves.

The only direct homage Get Rich gives Em is through Marcus’s rap name, Little Caesar, which I doubt is a reference to the Detroit-based pizza giant. But 50 matches 8 Mile’s prestigious director, Curtis Hanson, with a head-scratcher of his own – In America’s Jim Sheridan, who’s already said, rather infamously, “To me, 50 Cent is a black gangsta Jesus with the wounds to prove it.”

So he’s been shot nine times. So he’s got Irish melodramatist Sheridan saying he’s Jesus. So the posters for the film show 50’s impeccable, shot-nine-times body holding a baby with a gun tucked in his pants (another has him posed with a mic and a gun in outstretched hands.). Is he a gangster (read: violence, drugs, sex), or a rapper (read: violence, drugs, sex)?

Get Rich’s considerable hip-hop iconography – from the Rick James-looking villain, to the fantastic production design and costuming that indicate this may be a period film more than anything else – is all there to try and trick you into thinking that Marcus isn’t a gangster or a rapper, but a father. 50 may be a gangster, but he never kills anybody. He may sell drugs, but he never does any. He may say, “We got paid, and we got laid,” but in the film he’s monogamous. I’d call him a Hollywood anti-hero, but he’s just a regular old hero, leaving the city for the beach, staying with his girl and his child, getting cleaned up in prison and being honest to his friends, who all love him unconditionally, even before 50’s more hardened entourage kills those who fall out of his favor.

One member of 50’s crew is Bama, played by Terrence Howard, an actor who, unlike 50, can’t be over-hyped. He predictably steals every scene, but also takes us back to this summer’s Hustle & Flow, which offered a more honest and damning portrait of a burgeoning star.

Sheridan may seem like an odd choice to direct, but the fact that audiences say this is more racist than scholarly. If we expect the 50 Cent movie to be directed by Spike Lee or F. Gary Gray, then we’re more closed-minded than we unfairly perceive Sheridan to be. Narratively, Get Rich isn’t that different from In America – again, Sheridan offers surface portraits of everyday events in impoverished New York in an episodic fashion with an ensemble cast and a subdued climax. Problem is, In America was imbued with Sheridan’s own experience, drama and frustration; the entire film was filled with inevitable sadness. Get Rich replaces this sentiment with the terror of the inner city – it’s almost like a horror film with danger seemingly lurking at every corner.

To criticize 50 Cent acting as himself is foolish, but the man’s got a certain charm, and I found him rather compelling – he talks just like he raps, inaudibly and proudly. When he gets his jaw wired shut after being shot nine times, his voice hardly changes at all.

But then again, I’m fascinated by 50 for the same reason that all privileged white kids love hip-hop. Were you at the Kanye West (another man who’s had his jaw wired shut) concert last Sunday? During his hit “Gold Digger,” West sprinted to once side of the stage, looked with utmost seriousness at his Northwestern audience and stressed, “White people, this is the only time you’re allowed to say ‘n-!'”

West’s leasing of the term was temporary, as it should be, and looking around and seeing thousands of white kids getting down was at once very inspiring and very confusing. It recalls Little Caesar’s performance at the end of Get Rich – hip-hop music spins a world of trouble and pain most of us will never know, and then trumps it with music. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is problematic and painful, but it does speak this unerring truth – even if the voice is 50’s muted slur.4

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]