I’m up early in the mornin’, tryna make a movie.
— 50 Cent, “I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy”
Two countries I’m not number one in. Soon as this film is over,
I’m going there to find out why I’m not.
— 50 Cent, “A Portrait of an Artist: The Making of Get Rich or Die Tryin’“
Point Theatre in Dublin, September 2005. “A Portrait of an Artist: The Making of Get Rich or Die Tryin’” begins with 50 on stage, performing for an adoring crowd. “I want the finer things in my life,” he raps, ” So I hustle.” The kids go wild, the camera bounces around some, and then he announces that he’s about to release a new film, directed by Jim Sheridan, whom he identifies for this crowd as the man who made My Left Foot. You know, back in 1989. Ah well, he’s Irish. Perhaps the 50 fans will remember him.
“I’ve always loved rap,” says Sheridan when the film cuts to him on a bus. “I don’t know why. U2 are friends of mine, and Bono in particular.” The connection between these ideas is not entirely clear, expect that 50 appears in a wide angle on a cell phone, calling Bono’s name. So now you know: Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is Bono’s fault.
“Portrait of an Artist” suggests the film was conceived amid competing impulses: Jimmy Iovine wanted to make a gangster movie, someone else wanted to make The Sopranos, and Sheridan wanted to make an “Irish film about a family with a gangster story beside it.” While the director and his new rap friend walk the streets of Dublin, gathering inspiration and posing for photos with white kids in hip-hop gear, Terrence Howard extols Sheridan’s gifts (which are considerable, of course). “He wrote the script without knowing any of us,” marvels Howard. You know, like most people write movies.
“The search for the father” theme that Sheridan describes structures Get Rich. This even as 50 denies he ever cared about finding his own father; according to Sheridan, “It’s there in him.” It opens with Marcus’ shooting — based on 50’s famous “nine times” — by a hoodied associate, who does, in his way, love him like family. As he lies broken in the street, Marcus’ voiceover wonders why he was waiting for his father to come rescue him, a thought that leads directly to the requisite young-boy flashback. Marcus (Marc John Jeffries) lives with his mom, feisty, hoop-earringed Katrina (Serena Reeder). She tries hard to show her love, dealing 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], Marcus approaches with a steering wheel club).
Killed when Marcus is only eight years old, Katrina leaves him with the instruction 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 at his grandparents’, determined to hide his emotions from then on. And oh yes, he won’t be treating anyone right. Marcus starts looking for 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.
His isolation is ameliorated by family and conventional romance: he’s supported by his Grandma (Viola Davis), Grandpa (Sullivan Walker), and Charlene (child Rhyon Nicole Brown, grown up Joy Bryant), Marcus’ one true love. 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.
Beset, taciturn, and occasionally noble, Marcus takes up dealing himself, soliciting declarations of loyalty and 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 Sheridan and DP Declan Quinn, so he appears in lovely sunlit halos.
Such visual softening underlines Marcus’ fundamental decency as he pursues his desire to know his father. The search, which Sheridan describes as spiritual as well as physical, 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), and most notably, Marcus’ cellmate Bama (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. (In the documentary, 50 declares, “I didn’t intend on being nude in the film, now I’m naked in it. Jim Sheridan could talk me into pretty much anything.”)
Bama’s subsequent offer to be his manager boosts Marcus’ decision to 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 — this seems an odd decision, given 50’s remarkable stage presence). 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. Over footage of 50 and Howard in a studio, working on a track, Sheridan notes, “There’s no initiation anymore for young men. They just grow up and there’s nowhere to put these confused feelings that they have.”
Just so, the film circles back 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. (And 50 recalls his own shooting in the making of the scene: PAs pour fake blood in his mouth as 50 says, “Everyone else on the set that’s watching is not seeing what I’m seeing.”)
If violence tests “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. Sheridan appreciates 50’s survival, admires his toughness and charm and enjoys his sense of humor. Toward the end of the documentary, Sheridan says he told 50 not to “throw the money,” and then you see that 50 does throw money — into the street as the production crew is leaving a Bronx location. Bystanders spill over police barriers to grab at the bills, boys gasp that 50 has thrown “real money, man,” and Sheridan wonders at the decision.
“It was like having a lot of bees around the hive,” he says. “Everywhere, little kids were under our wheels, and I lost my temper.” Girls squeal and weep, kids rush and push. As quickly as it comes over him, Sheridan’s anger passes, and soon he’s planning a birthday celebration for his star, including a cake with 50 candles. Now comes the big 50 smile. “Every day’s my birthday,” he beams.