Get Rich or Die Tryin’: Jim Sheridan’s Tale of Black Rap Artist Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

The notion of an Irish filmmaker, Jim Sheridan, directing Get Rich or Die Tryin,’ a movie about the black rap artist Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, may sound incongruous, facing the risk of looking at the black phenomenon from the outside.

And yet, this movie is a logical follow-up to “In America,” Sheridan’s previous feature, a personal tribute to his experience as an immigrant in New York. “Get Rich” could have been called “In America Two,” even though it depicts another side of America.

There are underlying thematic continuities among Sheridan’s works over the past two decades. On one level, “Get Rich” is about a boy’s desperate search for the father he never had, a theme that Sheridan had explored in “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father,” both starring Daniel Day-Lewis. On another, “Get Rich” fits into the pattern of most of Sheridan’s films, which center on strong, charismatic characters that face enormous challenges, be they illness, poverty, or racial bigotry.

Though Jackson doesn’t have a particularly expressive face for the camera, this is his screen debut and he may develop as an actor. However, whatever he lacks in dramatic chops is made up for by his honesty and personal investment in this semi-autobiographical tale that, like most Hollywood biopics, whitewhashes some hard-hitting and unpleasant elements of the rapper’s real life.

One of the biggest stars in hip-hop, Jackson is the driving force behind “Get Rich or Die Tryin,” an emotionally engaging drama about an orphaned street kid who makes his mark in the drug trade but finally dares to leave the violence behind and become the rap artist he was meant to be.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because we have seen similar films about rap artists and their rise to fame against all odds, such as Curtis Hanson-Eminem’s “8 Mile” and the Sundance hit “Hustle & Flow.” Inevitable comparisons will be made with “Hustle & Flow,” which stars Terrence Howard (who plays a major role in “Get Rich”) as a pimp who redeems himself as a rap musician. “Hustle & Flow,” a quintessentially black movie, was also directed by a white artist, Craig Brewer. Sheridan’s “Get Rich” is more engaging if less candid than “8 Mile,” and more enjoyable than “Hustle & Flow,” which was marred by preposterous story

As written by Terence Winter (a two-time Emmy winner for “The Sopranos”), “Get Rich” draws parallels between the Italian gangster and the black urban gangsta worlds. A message picture in the way that John Singleton’s “Boyz N’ the Hood” was, “Get Rich” is an explicit cautionary tale about getting out of the hood by any means–without being killed or ending up in jail.

The film begins and ends symmetrically, with the image of Marcus (Jackson) fatally wounded. In one long flashback, that occupies most of the yarn, we learn about Marcus’ troubled youth, particularly his intimate and loving bond with his mother, Katrina (Serena Reeder). Shots of his mother, hugging him or taking him to the beach, punctuates the story, lending the otherwise tough and violent saga some necessary lyrical imagery and softer tone. It’s from his mother that Marcus learns to “treat women right.”

When his mother is brutally murdered, Marcus (played by a wonderful kid, Marc John Jeffries, who looks like Jackson) turns to dealing. Having observed hustling drugs as a boy, the activity is a “natural” for him; he rationalizes the risks and dangers involved, holding that “it pays the rent.”

For a while, it’s Marcus’ grandparents, particularly grandma (Viola Davis) who function as authority figures, trying to keep him off the street, that is, keep him a live. However, in an act of rebellion, he leaves their house, claiming that he doesn’t want to be placed in the same subservient and humiliating position as his grandfather. For years, Marcus endures this dual existence, basically a living hell, until a near fatal tragedy forces him to change his life radically.

The central chapters detail Marcus’ romantic relationship with Charlene (Joe Bryant), whom he has known and loved as a boy. Charlene returns to the city after being exiled by her parents to the suburbs. Sharing a bond, Marcus and Charlene were connected as children by their love for hip-hop, and when they meet again a decade later, the old flame is rekindled.

The action sequences revolve around Marcus and his buddies, particularly Bama (Terrence Howard, in another splendid performance), the violent-but-loyal friend and later music manager, who try to keep Marcus grounded as his world threatens to spiral out of control. Since both Marcus and Bama lack real family bonds, they become kindred spirits and surrogate siblings.

“Get Rich” doesn’t show how Marcus channels his anger and energy into hip-hop, assuming that the audience doesn’t need any psychological or motivational exposition; Marcus behaves as if he has always known he was going to be a rapper. However, Sheridan does show how he applies the same manic intensity to his writing as he does to drug dealing; Marcus realizes that the very act of writing down his words helps him to stay sane.

Last reel is rather conventional, wrapping up the tale in a predictable way, when Marcus embraces more fully and responsibly his familial roles as husband and father, though not before a bloodbath, in which he takes revenge on the man who had murdered his mother by setting her house on fire.

Sheridan presents the film as “a collage” of Marcus’ life, with incidents that are similar or parallel to those of Jackson’s off screen existence. Showing appreciation for hip-hop, Sheridan conveys vividly the notion that the rap world is closer to film than other musical genres because of its narrative underpinnings.

Showing understanding of the black community in Jamaica, Queens or the Bronx, Sheridan treats realistically their distinct subcultures of trouble, despair, and violence in the same way that he had depicted the tougher districts of Dublin, where he had lived and struggled as a youngster.

Throughout, Marcus conveys with authority and charisma the notion of a man who had nearly died and simply feels lucky to be alive. In sharp contrast to “Boyz N’ the Hood,” but similarly to Allen and Albert Hughes’ “Menace II Society,” “Get Rich” makes it clear that the moral education and very survival of most black boys is dependent not on their parents but grandparents, particularly grandmothers.

In Sheridan’s film, the major influences on Marcus’ life are all women, first his mother Katrina, then his grandma, and finally Charlene, the mother of his baby. The tension between the masculine and feminine codes of behavior in the black ghetto elevates “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” above the level of just an enjoyable rap biopicture.

The Film’s Title and Inspiration

Born and raised in Queens and coming of age in the drug scene of the late 1970s, the fatherless Curtis Jackson was forced into manhood at an early age, when his mother became a casualty of the drug game. The rest of his story has become modern folklore: the quick and deliberate ascension as a dealer, the lengthy rap sheet, the long hours perfecting his rhyming craft, the recording deal, the nine gunshot wounds that nearly took his life.

Dropped by his label, Jackson was determined not to let his dream of being a rapper fade away. With the help of his friend Sha Money XL, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson released an independent bootleg. The CD caught the ear of Eminem and Dr. Dre, who signed the rapper to a million-dollar record deal in 2002. “Get Rich or Die Tryin” set the mark for the all-time best debut with 900,000 units sold in the first week; it went on to be certified six times platinum. With his 2005 follow-up, “The Massacre,” Jackson became the first artist to have four songs in the top tem of Billboard’s Hot 100 since the Beatles in 1964. Debuting at No. 1, the album has sold more than four million units to date.