I don’t go to a hospital and let the janitor perform surgery on me, you know what I mean? But if you look at what Ice Cube, LL Cool J, and Queen Latifah have been able to do, it’s ridiculous to say their talents should be disregarded because they started out in music. At the same time, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Sam Jackson these days, because young actors wouldn’t be given those roles now. The film business is destroying itself by not breeding talent or nurturing young actors—and that’s why all movies suck now.
Like too many businesses today, “the film business” is in hot pursuit of profits. Movies turn repeatedly to sure bets to sell tickets: Miley Cyrus, Sex and the City, the 12th iteration of Transformers or the reboot of Spider Man. Every Monday, we hear the results of such impetus, the “news” of films’ successes or failures based only on how much money they’ve made. It’s so regular now as to go unnoticed. But the general rule doesn’t make Anthony Mackie’s point any less worth making.
Case in point: Lottery Ticket. Executive producer Ice Cube has built a small empire out of such projects, from the Fridays to the Barbershops to the Are We There Yets?, including the Terry Crews TV series, recently picked up for yet another 90 episodes. Ice Cube is surely capable of admirable work, evidenced in his music career, Boyz N the Hood, Three Kings, and more recently, his documentary on the Oakland Raiders, Straight Outta L.A.. And yet, here he comes with Lottery Ticket, a movie that might have inspired Mackie’s observation.
First, it’s being promoted as “Friday for a new generation.” There’s a certain sense to this strategy, not least being the familiarity of this new generation with Friday, via DVD and endless TV reruns. The changes to the original formula are less updated than telling. The kids this time are still feeling stuck in a neighborhood, discouraged by their elders’ backwardness, and harassed by bullies and distrustful of authorities.
Second, it’s remarkable how much 18-year-old Kevin (Bow Wow) has in common with Ice Cube’s Craig (from Friday), as well as how few structural or political changes have occurred over the past 15 years. Kevin’s a high school graduate with a go-nowhere job at Foot Locker, a dedicated grandson (to Loretta Devine, playing Loretta Devine, again). At film’s start, Kevin’s limited future is pretty much laid out, especially compared to that of his longtime neighbor Stacey (Naturi Naughton) who’s on her way to college (which Kevin, an equally good student, can’t afford). Resigned to stay in his Atlanta neighborhood with his best friend Benny (Brandon T. Jackson), Kevin is more than a little shocked when he wins a $370 million lottery prize.
Because it’s Fourth of July weekend, Kevin has to wait to collect the cash, which gives him way too much time to make the inevitable series of bad choices while surrounded by a series of supporting stereotypes, from the thug Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) to the bodacious babymama-wannabe Nikki (Teairra Mari) to the covetous preacher (Mike Epps, in an unfunny wig). As much as Kevin wants to do right things with his money, he’s not a great judge of character. As he spends a gangster’s advance loan stupidly—on cars and sneakers and a ridiculous date with Nikki—he very slowly comes to understand himself in a new way.
In other words, Kevin learns the same sorts of lessons that Craig learned in Friday, that have-nots get desperate, childhood friends are precious, and aging relatives deserve respect (if only because they’ve looked after you for so many years). That Kevin’s lesson takes the form of the lottery ticket (and omits references to weed) speaks to the slightly changed times, in which disenfranchised populations see the lottery not as the state’s cash cow, but as an individual dream just waiting to come true. It’s cruel fiction that takes lots of money from lots of people, all hoping to be the exception to the rule, whose lives are transformed by money.
It’s striking, maybe, that these fantasies sound like the stories lived out by so many hiphop stars, whose particular talents can be extraordinary but don’t always translate to other media. Bow Wow, like Ice Cube, is an appealing on-screen performer. Indeed, his scenes with Ice Cube, playing an ex-boxer named Mr. Washington, are less raucous and more credible than most any other in the film. Frustratingly but not surprisingly, these scenes stand out in Lottery Ticket, not because they’re excellent, but because so much else in it is loud and silly and frenzied. They make you yearn for that alternative universe in which the film business is not “destroying itself,” but instead giving young actors real work to do.