|BELIEVE THE HYPE? GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN'.|
Before I tell you why I detest Get Rich Or Die Tryin' so much, I'd like to first take you back to an argument I had last week with a couple friends about Hustle & Flow. The bone of contention? I had actually liked the film. Flabbergasted, my friends were politely
explaining to me that the movie's main character (DJay, played by Terrence Howard) was completely despicable, its romanticizing of pimping was horrible, and its A Star Is Born plotline was offensive considering that we're dealing with such lowlifes and degenerates. What the hell was wrong with me? Didn't I know better?
I'm used to these sorts of attacks about Hustle & Flow -- I'd read commentaries that basically accused anyone who liked the film of being a racist who probably preferred keeping black people down. This is completely ridiculous logic and sounds a lot like the folks who hate rap music
without ever trying to figure out exactly why the genre shows no signs of dying off. To my mind, Hustle is the best onscreen representation of gangsta rap's seductive hold over its audience. And since a white guy made the film, that goes double -- Hustle's blaxploitation feel is indicative of a white society hypnotized by black culture's exoticism. That Hustle is a sinister retelling of A Star Is Born isn't unintentional; DJay is an anti-hero who begrudgingly scraps together a little conscience along the way as he reaches for his dream of becoming a rapper. It works as an "inspirational" narrative, but the prize being eyed is dubious (but understandable). And at the same time, we aren't meant to judge these people; they have made bad choices, but they aren't inherently evil, and so the familiar storyline helps to connect "them" to "us."
Hustle & Flow never sat right with a lot of people because, although the scenario is certainly one a lot of wannabe hip-hoppers can appreciate, the message was a lot nastier than they would have liked. Sensitive, successful rap artists like Kanye West and OutKast are exceptions, folks; this musical landscape is more often dominated by either true or posturing thugs talking about a life of crime. That doesn't mean it's "good" or "right" or "proper" -- but that's what we're dealing with. Hustle & Flow shows you the nitty-gritty consequences of that world -- to dismiss DJay's songs like "Whoop That Trick" as disgusting is to miss the point; they sound true and they sound terrific, and you can imagine them making it onto the radio.
In terms of dissecting hip-hop's popular appeal, Hustle & Flow does everything right that Get Rich, 50 Cent's laughable film debut, does wrong. If you want to talk about a film that corrodes your soul and calculatingly celebrates rap's worst qualities -- its sexism, its worship of gun violence, its petty crime -- then Jim Sheridan's total misfire is for you.
Let's start with the most glaring question: Why the hell is Sheridan directing this limp piece of star product? Essentially a fictionalized version of the 50 Cent legend -- hustler goes into drug dealing, almost dies in an ambush, becomes great rap star -- Get Rich recycles every lame gangster/mob movie since before New Jack City. I'm hardly squeamish when it comes to violence, but the repetitive scenes of shootings and stabbings feel obligatory rather than dangerous or indicative of the milieu. Sheridan, better known for In America, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot, understands poverty and desperation, but he seems to be the producers' way of establishing some sort of artistic integrity to this total ghetto fantasy.
When you consider the violence that's occurred at a couple of theaters already showing Get Rich, you have to wonder if without Sheridan's stamp of quality people wouldn't be openly protesting in the streets. (And aside from complaints about the movie's initial billboards showing Fiddy with a gun, where are the same hand-wringing commentaries that met the arrival of Hustle & Flow? Is it because this movie is so base and obvious that it provokes no reaction and gets under no one's skin?)
As a performer, 50 Cent has always lacked his mentor Eminem's skill with role-playing, indelible verses and star charisma. Instead, the onetime Curtis Jackson is all menacing tough guy, sporting a roguish, almost intimidating sex appeal that he used to good effect on the slinkier numbers from this year's album, The Massacre. But his dead eyes and immovable glare, which work so well as the gangsta's gangsta, are major handicaps in a movie that demands he emote. What also doesn't help is that writer Terence Winter's treatment of the 50 Cent mythology is so formulaic that even though it's based on real events, you still don't believe it. (Also, let's not forget that so many of our high-profile rap superstars seem to sport the same thug-gone-legit story line -- Fiddy's story is probably more extreme than many of his peers, but it's not necessarily shocking.)
As opposed to Hustle & Flow, where writer-director Craig Brewer evoked a place and a community, Sheridan doesn't have more authorial control over 50's ghetto of New York. (At this juncture, I should mention that 50 Cent's character goes by another name -- Marcus, according to my notes -- but I don't care. A name for a character suggests that somehow Fiddy is extending himself beyond his own carefully manufactured image, but that is something he doesn't dare do here.) Instead, Sheridan seems to be "letting loose" and not worrying so much about the higher moral struggles that usually grip his films -- he wants to savor the slumming. But he's never been a very natural storyteller in that way -- he needs high morals to engage our minds -- and so 50's travels from lowlife to drug dealer to artist are buffeted with scenes that are rip-offs of rip-offs. For instance, Get Rich taught me these "astounding" truths of the street: Warring gangs will never ever fully make peace; when the crime lord goes to jail, his lieutenant will always screw up the business; the thug's girlfriend will always stand by him, no matter what; really simple armed robberies are never as easy to execute as they seem; the toughest hood gets all sentimental about his dead mom; and, let us not forget, prison really sucks. Who doesn't know this stuff, especially when you consider that the 50 Cent audience is probably well-versed in Brian De Palma's Scarface? What is the point of all this?
As with most of hip-hop's crash commercialism, the point is making money and selling the same thug fantasy again and again. It's odd that Get Rich inspires the same sort of moral disgust in me that Hustle elicits in my friends, but to me this isn't arbitrary. As a fan of the music, I recognize its power while disliking a lot of the lyrical content -- especially the homophobia, which irritates me even more than the sexism. But the best of the bunch are singing about a world they know that I don't, and I have to recognize that rather than dismiss it. Hustle & Flow at least attempts to acknowledge and explain; Get Rich ignores the reality and glorifies the thug lie. Tell me again which one is more detrimental.
Believe the Hype Rating: 0 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.