Mr. Cent Goes to Hollywood

Let’s say you could take a time machine back to the 1994 Academy Awards and locate Jim Sheridan, the Dublin-born filmmaker who had just garnered three nominations for In the Name of the Father. If you told him that less than a dozen years later, he would be directing a star vehicle for a rapper who had never acted before, he probably would have said, “What did I do to deserve that?” in an unnerved Irish accent.

Now suppose you took that same time machine back to May of 2000, and approached 50 Cent. He had yet to hit the big time, never acted before and had just been shot nine times. If you told him he would one day headline a movie helmed by one of the most acclaimed directors of the last 15 years, his primary reaction probably would have been, “That’s terrific. Now would you mind calling an ambulance for me, good sir?”

Yet no matter how strange it seems, when you look at a pairing like this, you have to remember that this is the way Hollywood works now. Rappers are expected to act even more than teen movie starlets are expected to sing. None of this should be particularly surprising. Pop stars have graced the big screen for about as long as there have been big screens to grace.

What’s strange to see now, though, is how rappers are moving beyond the supporting role work of Mos Def or the Nouveau Blaxploitation filmography of DMX. They are actually stepping into the top spots once filled by the likes of Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington. As Murphy and Washington slowly drift into middle age, Hollywood hasn’t really groomed any black actors to fill their positions of power. Derek Luke hasn’t received the choice roles since his dazzling debut in Antwone Fisher, and Jamie Foxx only got his Oscar because an independent financier — not a major studio — came through to support Ray. And Cuba Gooding Jr.’s post-Oscar career sank faster than a Boat Trip on the Lusitania.

So, with no new actors to easily market to urban audiences – or to the white suburbanites who fawn over what they perceive as black culture, Hollywood has turned to a familiar fallback plan. When actual movie stars are in short supply, just look to the pop charts.

To be fair, with musicals out of vogue, rappers as a group are more intrinsically prepared to handle movie roles than other pop stars. No rapper becomes successful without possessing marked presence, and the art itself is certainly good preparation for the rhythmic particulars of dialogue. Additionally, the fashions and marketing of hip-hop require each of its practitioners to play characters convincingly, more so than other musical genres. Busta Rhymes plays the freak, LL Cool J the ladies man, 50 the thug, etc. So it should not be a shock to see, say, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube succeed on the silver screen, like they did in Training Day and Three Kings, respectively. The gravitas and conviction were already plainly there before they ever stepped in front of a camera.

What was a bit harder to see coming was the new breed of prestige rap films, with rappers jumping straight to the top of the marquee in critic-friendly movies. It’s a trail that was blazed by Eminem and 8 Mile and now is being followed by 50 Cent with Get Rich or Die Tryin’, his collaboration with Sheridan.

8 Mile was odd in prospect and is just as odd looking back. It took a rap superstar and exceptional self-promoter and paired him with one of Hollywood’s best directors, Curtis Hanson of L.A. Confidential and the underappreciated Wonder Boys. While the movie was burdened with less than stellar writing and a soundtrack that it had to hawk mercilessly, the end result was a genuinely good motion picture, one acknowledged by both critics and box office receipts.

Most unexpected was the strength of Eminem’s performance. Some detractors scoffed at the accomplishment of playing oneself in a loosely biographical movie. But the part required Eminem to step out of his ordinary public persona. Just as Revenge of the Sith would later serve as a prequel to Anakin Skywalker being Darth Vader in the original Star Wars movies, the somber, destitute, brunette Eminem played in 8 Mile served as a sort of prequel to the loud-mouthed, bleach-blonde, cartoonish rapper that would later dominate MTV.

Hanson followed his experience of framing show business within L.A. Confidential and novel writing within Wonder Boys and did the same thing with rapping in 8 Mile. In doing so, he created an effective character drama that could let Eminem do what he does best while piling on a Rocky-like underdog triumph story without cheapening the whole production.

The experience worked out so well for Dr. Dre and Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, who produced the movie and its soundtrack, that they’re now trying to pull the same trick with 50 Cent. And while a younger Sheridan may have been surprised at this gig, he’s actually the perfect person to follow Hanson’s lead.

It’s no accident that the producers steered clear of directors who cut their teeth making rap videos like Antoine Fucqua and F. Gary Gray. Sheridan, like Hanson, has shown a strong ability to nest other forms of media in his narratives. He did with art in My Left Foot and with the art and home videos of In America. Employing that device is the perfect way to play to a rapper’s strengths and appeals, while still making a well-rounded movie.

Yet while Sheridan makes a sensible choice for the production, there’s still the question of why an aging, Irish, theatre-trained director with six Oscar nominations and a long working relationship with Daniel Day-Lewis would even bother helming 50’s debut. Maybe the script from frequent Sopranos scribe Terence Winter is just that good. Maybe Sheridan needs the paycheck or wants to reach a wider audience. We can’t know.

But no matter what, this is a different Hollywood landscape than it was when our time machine pulled up to the Oscars eleven years ago. André 3000 of Outkast is set for multiple high-profile roles in 2005, while Washington and Murphy watch from the sidelines. Rappers in debut roles like Eminem and 50 Cent are getting movies more elaborately tailored to showcase their abilities than even Julia Roberts can get anymore. Suddenly, we see some of cinema’s most serious and interesting directors taking the reins of star vehicles. And most bizarre is that none of this even seems to raise an eyebrow anymore.

Through all the craziness, though, one thing still remains clear: Jim Sheridan and 50 Cent can’t have seen each other coming.