Rappers turned actors are generating a lot of buzz, box office and bombast in Hollywood. In the case of the latter, no one has been more vocal than Samuel L. Jackson who has turned down several roles in movies that co-starred rappers. His most recent diss was of 50 Cent in last year’s, “Get Rich Or Die Trying.” Jackson opined, “‘It’s not my job to lend credibility to so-and-so rapper who’s just coming into the business,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 2002. ”I know there’s some young actor in New York or LA who’s spent half his life learning how to act and sacrificing to learn his craft, but he isn’t going to get his opportunity, because of some actor who’s been created.”
In a later interview, Jackson elaborated, saying”I’ve worked in movies that have rappers in them and I didn’t have a problem with that. I don’t cast the movies. But I do think that if somebody’s building a film around some rapper and they come to me with it, I have a right to say no…Acting is a craft – not a whim.”
In the feud with 50 Cent, Jackson said “I like listening to 50 Cent and I can groove to his music but I don’t want to groove to him on screen, just yet. Maybe if he does five movies and he shows some talent.” 50 countered, “”So I come from being a rapper, and he comes from being a crackhead,” a reference to Jackson’s early drug troubles. The two later squashed things at the Spike Video Game Awards and have signed on to do a picture together.
The criticism on its surface appears unfair. Rappers have a built-in following that generates box office. The movie “Three Kings” starred George Clooney and rappers-turned-actor Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg. Suppose if it had starred Clooney, with LeVar Burton and Matt Dillon. Could it have achieved the crossover success it had? Furthermore, many rappers have received critical and industry acclaim for their acting acumen. Both Will Smith (“Ali,” 2001) and Queen Latifah (“Chicago,” 2002) have garnered Oscar nominations. Smith has also been a box-office champ with “Independence Day”(1886) and “Men In Black” (1997).
However, in Smith’s case, there are those in the music industry that say he never should have been rapping. Many found his work sophomoric, generic and plainly commercial. While he has always been known for the quality of the roles he has chosen, last year’s Smith “comedy” vehicle “Hitch,’ lacked laughs and was uninspiring.
Other rappers that have made the transition from vinyl to the big screen includes the late Tupac Shakur (“South Central”), whose screen persona I equate to that of James Dean; Wahlberg (“The Perfect Storm”), LL Cool J (“Deliver Us From Eva”), Busta Rhymes (“Finding Forrester,” “Shaft”) and Ice-T (“Surviving the Game” and as detective Odafun Tutuola in the TV drama “Law & Order: SVU”).
However, several rappers find themselves being typecast as thugs and killers. While Snoop Dogg may have a hardcore legion of fans, it hasn’t necessarily translated to box-office success. Moreover, he’s shown little discretion about his roles, including his turn as the “host” of the “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Snoop also headlined the cast of the worst movie I’ve ever viewed, 1999’s “Urban Menace,” along with other notable flops–“Soul Plane” (2004) and “Starsky and Hutch” (2000). In fairness he received critical notice for his performances in “Bones” (2001) and John Singleton’s 2001 urban tale “Baby Boy.”
The problem with Snoop is that he brings the same persona (himself) to every character he plays and like Keanu Reeves, his range is limited. There have been other rappers who are weak thespians, such as Eve, whose wooden performance in 2004’s “The Cook Out” made Sophia Coppola’s turn in “The Godfather III” look like Meryl Streep. If DMX could do anything else except scowl and speak in a monotone, he too, might garner some “stage cred.”
Most movies rappers appear in are low-budget affairs that allow these neophytes to cut their acting teeth. But the themes hardly vary from the ghetto-quest-for-riches-by-any-means themes. “Set It Off,” was of this same ilk but benefit from a poignant storyline and pulse-raising action scenes. The cast featured four black women–Queen Latifah. The Vivica Fox, Ella Joyce and Jada Pinkett–in a tale about four females who view bank robberies as a means of escaping the drudgery and hopelessness that encompasses their lives. Since this film, Latifah has gone on to win over fans in films like “Bringing Down The House,” where she co-starred with Steve martin and Eugene Levy.
Ice-T appeared to take a step back with the lightly-regarded and ridiculous plot of “Leprechaun In The Hood,” and as of late hasn’t been seen on the big screen in any roles of note. Plans are for Ludacris and Jay-Z to make their big screen debuts as well. This phenomenon will probably grow, especially since 50s debut in “Get Rich” and Eminem’s turn in “8 Mile.” Both received kudos for their performances. However, one has to question the skills of these “actors, especially when the praise they receive is for playing scenes from their own lives.
Arguably, the most talented and role-conscious of this new breed of “thespians” is Mos Def (born Dante Terrell Smith). He became known to many through his appearances on “Chappelle’s Show,” and his memorable turn as Dr. Vivian Thomas in the HBO’s Something The Lord Made, which earned him a Best Actor Emmy and Globe nomination, along with a Teen Image Award. He also received critical praise for his role as Ford Prefect in the disappointing, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,”
The thirty-three year old Brooklyn native began his career with the rap group Thermo Dynamics, but most of his work was unknown outside of New York’s underground circuit. Using his popularity in rap circles, he teamed with Def Jam’s Russell Simmons to create HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Unlike most of the aforementioned rappers, he began his entertainment career at age fourteen starring in alongside Mare Winningham in the TV movie, God Bless The Child. He also co-starred in the short-lived “Cosby Mysteries.” Recently he starred with Bruce Willis in “16 Blocks.”
This young man is just scratching the surface of his seemingly endless talent. He will bring back “Def Poetry” for a sixth season and later this year will release a new CD. On tap for the multi-talented Brooklynite are three films, currently in pre-production: Stringbean and Marcus, Toussaint, and The Brazilian Job.
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