“You can pray for a miracle and God may be hearing you.”

—from “I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy,” 50 Cent

One of the most over-used lines about hip-hop came from the lips of Public Enemy’s frontman, Chuck D, when he described rap music as the CNN of the streets. The thrust of his point was that if one truly wanted to know what was going on in the hearts of the inner city, all one had to do was listen to the music the inner city produced. Unfortunately, there was profit to be made in what would become known as “gangsta rap,” and soon the music spawned endless imitators, many of questionable talent, bordering on becoming a caricature of itself.

Enter 50 Cent.

09.jpg (56 K)Directed by Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot), Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is about coming to a crossroads, seeing two divergent paths in front of you, and choosing the best path for your life. The movie can’t escape the inevitable comparison to Hustle & Flow; too bad for Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that it isn’t as well done. The still-compelling story details the less-than-secret origin of 50 Cent (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), portraying Marcus aka “Young Caesar”: a young man with a drug-dealing mother, who never knew his father, who chooses to sell drugs on the streets, then survives a nine-gunshot-wound attempt on his life to become a multi-million album-selling rap artist. One of the problems with this movie is its own identity crisis, as it couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to be Scarface/King of New York or 8 Mile.

The heart of the story revolves around Marcus trying to figure out how to be a man without a role model. He grew up without a father figure though he couldn’t escape his need for one; growing up as his girlfriend Charlene (Joy Bryant) fears for their child as “another little black boy with nobody to look up to.” Pretty much de rigeur for a world where the revered options of how to make it seem to be reduced to being a rapper, an athlete, or a drug dealer. Marcus can’t escape the lure of the streets, despite the negative effects of drug use as well as the love of family (from the grandparents who had taken him in). The questionable-at-best message at the heart of the movie depends on how you feel about the glorification of the rules of the street, especially done in so lackluster a fashion.

“Respect is the most important thing in life.” Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)

05.jpg (61 K)Besides the quest for a father, the other major theme within the movie is the endless search for respect. “You don’t need family. All you need is respect,” Majestic preaches, because when all you have is your name and your rep, your pride becomes of critical (if not overwhelming) importance. Following in the footsteps of his mother, Marcus chooses to enter the family business, surrounding himself with a crew dedicated to “getting paid and getting laid.” The street hustlethe rules of the game having changed with the influx of crack and real moneyinto the community provides whatever tenuous bonds of family he feels to offset the rage of the streets. So when his Grandpa (Sullivan Walker) asks “Who are you?”, the answer Marcus proudly proclaims is a “gangsta,” the ideal/hero of the streets. Or, to quote Bill Duke’s Levar, “God, Buddha, Allah all rolled up into one big nigga.” The gangsta has become the main image and role model that children know.

“Rule number five: Don’t show no love. Love will get you killed.” Majestic

06.jpg (71 K)There are rules to the game, the street hustle, rules reflecting the self-hatred that comes from living a nihilistic existence. Ghetto life is a reality, a cauldron of pain, anger, poverty, and injustice, where people live in conditions with limited opportunity, limited education and extreme poverty. And too often, a survival by any means necessary (take what you want, prey on whoever you need as long as you get yours) mentality pervades. There is a wholesale buy-in to a different set of modern, American values. Individualism, this “me first” narcissism which fragments community, is only one such value. “You a man, you don’t need nothing to see you through,” Majestic advises. Rampant materialism that shrivels peoples souls and empties their lives. Wanting the cars, the house, the clothes, the jewels, the gear, people have bought into a life not realizing that they chase illusion.

All the while forgetting that gold chains are still chains.

13.jpg (68 K)I’m reminded of this quote from C.S. Lewis (from Weight of Glory): Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

“You saved my life. Why?” (Marcus)
“I don’t know. It looked like it needed saving.” (Bama, Terrence Howard)

Marcus had it all, by street measurements, but he recognized that there was still something missing. Sadly, his epiphany arrived as he faced the moment of his death. When he knew he was about to die, he realized that he still expected his father to save him. The problem was that he was looking for the wrong father. The conclusion he comes to was that his life was every bit the tombmuch like the one his mother had created for herselfand he had to find his way out. His escape came in his ability to express himself, to make his mark: a kind of salvation through music. His “I’d rather die like a man than live like a coward” ethos aside, Marcus best summed that self-salvation scheme this way: “I’ve been looking for my father my whole life. And I realized that I was looking for me.”

22.jpg (68 K)The rules governing the streets makes sense if you don’t have God, the Father. Qoholet, the Teacher (the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, not to be confused with KRS-ONE) would call this lifestyle “vanity of vanities.” Put another way, if we pursue the things in this life “for merely human reasons, what have [we] gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (I Corinthians 15:32) We all need to see the need to walk away from our old lives and embrace a new one. We have to opt out of a worldview of selfishness, one that promotes the death cycle. We esteem prison life and values. We devalue women, sex, and relationships with hip hop values marketed as videos. A fascination with a death culture where one can sell poison, settle disputes with gunfire, in order to subsidize empty life on the way to an inevitably bloody demise. Instead, we ought to buy into a worldview that promotes dignity, work, marriage, family, and healthy community.

50 Cent is not an actor, but he is a charismatic figure. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is too long, with an often meandering script showing surprisingly little heart, as if it can’t quite reach its emotional core. Too often the movie felt like it was going through the cinematic motions (I won’t even comment on the ridiculous Rocky-like montage). However, there’s a good story somewhere in this mess of a film and themes very much worth wrestling with.