Hip-hop has never gotten over the death of Tupac Shakur. It probably never will. In his absence, hip-hop has embraced an endless series of 2Proxies. Some are transparently ridiculous, like Ja Rule and Master P. Others are harder to dismiss, like DMX and 50 Cent. Having survived many of the things that killed rap's preeminent martyr, 50 Cent poses an especially formidable challenge to Pac's title. He was like a 2Pac who was shot a bazillion times in Vegas, only to come back ten times harder and bigger than ever.
50 Cent has mastered 2Pac's genius for being everything to everyone. A combustible collection of contradictions, 50 Cent spits grimy gangsta raps in a soft, high voice that grows positively girlish when he sings hooks. He's a pop star with street credibility, a rapper who conquered the mean streets and Wall Street. He's an icon equally at home on the cover of G.Q and Murder Dog. He's become a millionaire many times over for sneering insouciantly at the values of mainstream America.
50 Cent seemed to come out of nowhere, but by the time Get Rich Or Die Tryin' conquered the world, he'd overcome a daunting gauntlet of obstacles. He'd survived crack wars and years of hustling. He survived major-label shenanigans and getting dropped by Columbia. Most famously, he survived getting shot nine times. When record companies wouldn't give him the time of day, he won street fame by jacking other rapper's beats and flooding the streets with rapturously received mix-tapes.
50 Cent is cocky, obnoxious, and arrogant. He sets teenaged girl's hearts atwitter while antagonizing their parents. He has no respect for anyone or anything. He flaunts a lifestyle of wanton excess, drug abuse, and promiscuity. He refuses to eat his vegetables. In other words, he's everything a pop star should be.
50 Cent arrived on the pop culture landscape with an elaborate, well-honed mythology begging for the big-screen treatment. Yet Get Rich Or Die Tryin' the movie sent the seemingly unstoppable momentum of Curtis Jackson's career spiraling in the wrong direction. It was released amidst a fearsome backlash against 50's homegrown empire. An autobiographical drama with prestige-film aspirations somehow became a referendum on the morality of gangsta rap in general and 50 Cent in particular.
The backlash began well before the movie opened. Community activists protested billboards for a film they felt glamorized violence. A skittish studio changed the film's name from the relatively bland Locked And Loaded to Get Rich Or Die Tryin', a move that came off as defensive and desperate. It also meant that fans who loved 50's Aftermath debut were being asked to buy a second album called Get Rich Or Die Tryin'.
One of my favorite running gags in 30 Rock involves Tracy Morgan's belief that a group of civic-minded African-American icons called the "Black Crusaders" are out to ruin him. In Morgan's paranoid mind, the Black Crusaders are the ones "who shut down Fifty's movie". It's a joke of course, but Fifty's movie nevertheless epitomizes our country's endless push-pull between Puritanism and perversion, voyeurism and moralism.
The music world took a long, hard look at 50 and said "Love the guns. Love the violence. Love the profanity. Love the sexism. Love the blatant glorification of drug dealing and gunplay. Don't change a thing, you glorious money-making cash cow you." Then 50 took an infinitely more noble, more socially conscious, and responsible version of his shtick to the big-screen, only to have the gate-keepers of morality give him a long hard spanking for his profanity, sexism, violence, and blatant glorification of drug dealing.
Get Rich Or Die Tryin opens with 50 and his crew driving to a heist. Adrenaline is pumping. The music is bumping. The tension is thick. But when 50 and the gang reach their destination, things start to go wrong, with the film and with the robbery. Director Jim Sheridan, a six-time Oscar nominee, and Sopranos writer Terence Winter aim for gritty, Scorsese-style drama but end up with a strange, unsatisfying cross between bad television and lurid blaxploitation melodrama. Terrence Howard's mercurial hustler comes in shooting, then launches into a purple, overwrought speech about how he loves 50, how he was nothing before he hooked up with him. To deflate the tension, 50 winks briefly at one of the terrified people he's holding at gunpoint. That maddening wink serves the story–he's trying to calm down a young man who could cause him all sorts of trouble–but he's also winking at the audience. That telltale wink says, "Don't worry folks, I may be toting a gun and playing a gangsta, but really I'm just 50 Cent, that rapper-person your 12-year-old daughter likes but that you find kinda threatening. Please continue to buy my albums, mix-tapes, custom line of computers, G-Unit hoodies, posters, and special Formula 50 brand Mineral Water. Otherwise your children will hate you. Even more than they already do. In conclusion: G-G-G-G-G-G-G-Unit!"
After the job, 50 returns to his grandma's house, only to be shot multiple times in the street. "Lying there, staring down the barrel of that 9, I knew I was about to die. I don't know why I was expecting my father to rescue me. I realized I'd been looking for him all my life" drones 50's narration. Great narration has a confessional, intimate quality. The narrator is whispering secret thoughts into the audience's collective ear. The movie theater becomes a confessional, with the audience serving as a priest who can grant or deny absolution. 50's narration has none of those qualities. It never amounts to anything more than a novice actor stiffly reciting words from a script. From its first scene onwards, Get Rich Or Die Tryin' has exactly two modes: overwrought and wooden, over-the-top and hopelessly stilted.
The film then flashes back to 50's hardscrabble childhood as the son of an absent father and a drug-dealing mom and his early days leading a crack-selling gang on the streets of Queens. Joy Bryant co-stars as 50's upscale girlfriend and audience surrogate. She sees the good in him, but is repelled by his demons. She's also called upon to be explain away 50's acting. "Men hide their emotions. You bury yours, Marcus," she tells him/the audience at one point. Yeah, that's the ticket: 50 is simply playing a stoic too repressed to express himself, not a terrible actor incapable of conveying anything resembling emotion. If, as my colleague Amelie Gillette has so memorably suggested, Zach Braff has a face made of feelings, 50 has the exact opposite: a face where emotions go to die an icy, unmourned death.
When tears stream down 50's face late in the film, I found myself thinking "Wow. So that's what it looks like when a robot cries." When Eminem exposed his vulnerability in 8 Mile, it humanized an oft-divisive figure. It brought back the Eminem we all fell in love with, a latchkey kid who transformed the anger and anxieties of poor white kids in love with black culture into the stuff of pop art. But 50 here emerges as an emotional black hole. He sucks up all the emotion and energy of everyone around him.
Late in the film, Sheridan shows 50's life flashing before his eyes as he lingers on the brink of death after being shot multiple times. Images from pop culture blur with fragments from his own tortured adolescence and early adulthood before Sheridan flashes back to 50's troubled birth amidst the fireworks and hoopla of the Fourth of July. Sheridan is swinging madly for the bleachers, but since the film allows no point of entry into 50's story, it all rings hollow.
Re-watching Get Rich, three scenes stood out. In the first, 50 picks up a Mercedes with his drug money and his icy scowl gives way to a joyous, jubilant smile and equally infectious laughter. For the first and last time in the film, 50 expresses something approximating joy. The second scene is a naked knife fight that unfolds like gritty slapstick tragedy. In the last memorable scene, Howard convinces 50 that when he's right, he's right and even when he's wrong, he might be right in that he may be wrong about being wrong. (Don't bother trying to make sense of it. Its lunacy is the essence of its appeal.)
As Get Rich Or Die Tryin' drew mercifully to a close, I found myself thinking "You know who'd absolutely kill in the lead role in this? Fucking 2Pac." Now there was a guy who could act and wasn't afraid to expose the full range of his complicated, contradictory emotions. Even in death, Pac has a way of upstaging pretenders to his throne.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco