The New Orleans disaster was meant to happen. It was an act of God…. I think people responded to it the best way they can. What Kanye West was saying, I don’t know where that came from.
— 50 Cent, 1 November 2005
And where, you might ask, is 50 Cent coming from? In a word, money. The vitamin-water endorser and erstwhile street hustler now has all kinds of capital interests to protect. And so he’s looking to expand his assets into movies, much like his mentor, Mr. Shady Aftermath, with a prestige director and an up-from-the-bottom plot.
In Get Rich or Die Tryin’, everybody loves Marcus. The beset, taciturn, and occasionally noble drug dealer played by 50 Cent solicits declarations of affection from everyone around him, from relatives to homeboys to would-be killers. Certainly, the film wants you to love him. Full of earnest conversations about how important it is to “express yourself” even (or especially) when you’re oppressed by poverty, violence, and lack of options, it frames Marcus repeatedly in those evocative filtered-light frames favored by director Jim Sheridan and DP Declan Quinn, so he appears in sunlit halos. Such visual softening underlines Marcus’ fundamental decency.
Thuggish on the outside, he’s possessed of a dazzling smile and an admirable devotion to his mother, feisty, hoop-earringed dealer Katrina (Serena Reeder). Killed when the boy is only eight years old (played as a child by the affecting Marc John Jeffries), she instructs him to “treat women right.” This lesson turns exponentially more poignant when she’s beaten and burned to death by a rival dealer in her home, leaving little Marcus to hunker down in a corner in his grandparents’ home, determining to hide his emotions from then on.
And so it falls to others to do the talking. Prominent among his devotees are his Grandma (Viola Davis), his slightly more skeptical Grandpa (Sullivan Walker), and his first and apparently only love, Charlene (child Rhyon Nicole Brown, grown up Joy Bryant). Sent away as a child by a stepfather who hears in young Marcus’ lyrics (“If you’re my best friend / I want you around all the time”) too much physical inclination, she returns to their Jamaica Queens neighborhood as a dance teacher who, she admits adorably, has “been thinking about that song for 10 years.” Though Marcus mentions her “career” when she tells him she’s pregnant with his child, you never see her dance or teach, only gaze on Marcus, encourage his art, and forgive his frankly egregious trespasses. Her primary function in this homosocial romance, however, is to secure his heterosexuality. Just in case you start wondering.
Marcus’ trespasses form the bulk of the film’s action. It opens with Marcus’ shooting — based on 50’s famous “nine times” — by a hoodied associate, who does, in his way, love him. As he lies broken in the street, Marcus’ voiceover takes you back to his youth, his mom’s mighty efforts to supply him with new sneakers (“I love you,” she explains, as she heads off to work the corner), and his own efforts to protect her (observing her in a turf scuffle with the “Rick-James-looking motherfucker” Slim [Leon], the boy approaches with a steering wheel club, anxious but ready to fight). Feeling sad and guilty about her death, Marcus also seeks to know his father, noting early on, “Everyone was in love with my mom, so anyone could be my dad,” except, he adds, a white man or a cop.
This search leads him to a series of relationships with men, including head gangster Levar (played by Bill Duke and introducing himself as “God, Allah, and Buddha, all rolled up into one big ‘nigger'”), brutal Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, revisiting and revising Adebisi), and most notably, Marcus’ very vocal cellmate Bama (Terrence Howard). “I fuckin’ love you man, I’d do anything for you,” Bama says during a robbery, when he almost kills a young boy because, he explains, “That’s what I do, I kill motherfuckers, you know that!”
Marcus does know that, as a flashback to their first meeting in a prison shower demonstrates. When Marcus is assaulted by a shank-wielding inmate, Bama jumps right into the melee, wherein several naked, hard-bodied men are soon slipping and sliding in water and soap and blood. The scene — which lasts a couple of minutes, held in long shot to emphasize its awkwardness and vehemence — cuts to Bama and Marcus, now friends for life, handcuffed and naked on the shower floor, side by side. “You saved my life,” says Marcus. Why?” As Bama eventually reveals, it was love at first sight.
Bama’s offer to be his manager boosts Marcus’ own decision to leave the street life and dedicate himself to rapping; when someone slips a razor blade into his cell so he can kill himself, Marcus starts carving lyrics into his wall, so you know he’s serious. (50’s only full-on rap performance, as Marcus’ alter ego Young Caesar, comes under the film’s closing credits). The partners’ release from prison leads to increasingly nasty collisions with Majestic, who feels possessive toward Marcus. As Majestic sees it, he wants his “hardest working” dealer to help in their ongoing turf wars with “the Colombians” (utterly stereotypical here). As Marcus starts to feel it, Majestic wants too much, loyalty unto death. That much love, he can’t give.
Before it ends, the movie circles back predictably to Marcus’ shooting, reframed as a rebirth. As Marcus lies on an ER surgery table, doctors hovering over him and marveling that he’s still breathing, the scene cuts back to Katrina giving birth, all screams and sweat and pain. Perverse and almost operatic, the sequence suggests mom’s redoubtable strength and Marcus’ endless regret over all those violent trespasses. Now that he’s facing death, he’s rethinking. Though this would seem to be the movie’s most profound moment, and something of a visual climax, it also reveals its schizzy center. Claiming violence as true tests of “character,” the movie suggests that lyrical battle is the most potent form of truth-telling. But this is only the case when the teller is “authentic,” has endured and inflicted pain.
While this death-birth imagery evokes the sort of gangsta self-love that John Singleton’s Baby Boy rather dismantled with similarly feverish imagery, it’s not the end of Marcus’ journey. It is, at last, Majestic who brings it. More than a little invested in maintaining Marcus’ loyalty, Majestic arrives for Marcus’ big opening at a local club. Unable to convince his onetime protégé to step back, Majestic goads him into a fight. Barely conscious after he’s been throttled and beaten, Majestic lifts up his bloodied head and gurgles, “I love you, man.” Of course. Everybody does.