This movie got terrible reviews
during its surprisingly brief theatrical run in the fall of 2005. After a decent opening weekend, the film quickly lost its commercial momentum, too, and failed to break even. What a shame. It’s an underrated gem that gives you a much better sense of who this 50 Cent character really is. Also, if you ever harboured any delusions about becoming a gangbanger, you need to see this movie. It’ll scare you straight.
Named after his major-label debut album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a slightly fictionalized version of Curtis Jackson’s harrowing life story. Renamed Marcus, we quickly learn just how difficult it was for him to have a normal life free from danger, pain and temptation. We meet his mom, a waitress who gave birth to him in her restaurant who also moonlights as a drug dealer. (Disappointingly, it’s never really explained why she takes that risky second job.) There’s a key scene where she gets out of her car in the middle of the day and proceeds to yell at a fellow hustler, who looks like Rick James circa the early ’80s, for working her turf. Not too long after, she’s murdered. Marcus thinks the James clone is responsible and he becomes obsessed with finding him.
With no father in the picture, Marcus moves in with his grandparents (Viola Davis and Sullivan Walker) and eight other kids. It’s tough for him to fit in. With so many mouths to feed, it’s difficult to keep your food on your plate. The sleeping arrangements are a nightmare. Everybody has to double up and it’s quite uncomfortable. Marcus does something smart, though. Annoyed by the culinary thievery at the dinner table, he douses one of the culprits with water, causing a loud commotion. His kindly grandpa (who played Bill Cosby’s buddy/petanque opponent on a memorable episode of The Cosby Show) relocates him to the laundry room where he learns the true value of privacy. Besides, he needs the space to develop his burgeoning talent as a rapper.
Well before that, he writes a remarkably mature rhyme for Charlene, his first love. But it’s highly suggestive nature offends Charlene’s mother and stepfather who quickly move their daughter out of the area, thereby preventing any possible hanky panky.
During these early scenes, Marc John Jeffries, perfectly cast as the younger version of Marcus, does a good job of involving us in his already disorienting life. It’s astounding how much he resembles Curtis Jackson, too. You’d swear they’re related in some way. The once emotionally available, happy-go-lucky kid soon becomes withdrawn and closed off after the brutal murder of his mom. Self-preservation becomes a personal commandment. By the time 50 Cent takes over the role for good, he becomes the ultimate poker player. Impossible to read and outplay, for the most part.
Still as a troubled child, Marcus follows in his mother’s footsteps so he can buy that pair of sneakers he likes and eventually, as a grown man, that white S500 Mercedes he doesn’t have a license to drive. He knows the game and the players and still foolishly jumps in. Being a pre-teen drug dealer is dangerous business. Three slightly older dealers beat him up one day over territory but he’s rescued by a nasty character named Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje from Lost in a terrific performance) before things get completely out of hand. He takes him to a fast food joint and laughs at his youthful chutzpah. He takes him under his wing and the little man pays his dues. There’s a great moment where 50 Cent, who does an entertaining job narrating this thinly veiled version of his pre-stardom years, notes that the benefits are few and far between for this kind of drug dealing, especially when you consider the very real risk of doing serious time in prison. You’re better off earning minimum wage in that fast food restaurant. Illegitimacy is the road to ruin.
But everything changes when Majestic improves their inventory. Soon, the bottom line is fattening and joy briefly returns to Marcus’ face. There’s even a side order of swagger to go with it.
Then, he reconnects with Charlene (played as an adult by the beautiful and effective Joy Bryant from Antwone Fisher) after a decade apart. She’s training to be a dancer and much to her old pal’s delight, they have a future together. (One gets the impression she stayed single for him after all these years. We never do learn what happened to her after she left, though.) There’s a nice moment where Charlene reveals that she hasn’t forgotten the sexy song Marcus wrote for her when they were kids. The air becomes thick with the promise of consummation. It changes their lives forever.
There’s so much more to this story. An ongoing turf war between the Black drug dealers, led by the towering Bill Duke, and the Columbians, who, curiously, despite being trigger-happy competitors, continuously supply them with crack. A rapper named Dangerous who’s anything but. A coup. A jail sentence that reforms a lost soul. A dream slowly becoming reality. A life-changing alliance with a trusted friend. Needless to say, there’s plenty of material here to fill its two-hour running time.
Directed by Jim Sheridan, who made the superior In The Name Of The Father, it’s a compelling examination of the tragic cycle of pain that broken Black families find themselves trapped in in America. I would’ve liked to have learned more about Marcus’ mother, though. In the few scenes she appears in, she leaves an indelible impression. Encouraging her son’s musical ambition, she worries about him loving her too much to the point where his instincts override his common sense. But even she can’t protect him from all the intoxicating dangers of the street. She’s a broad in every sense of the word. Tough and independent, yet warm-hearted and dependable. Her most memorable piece of advice to Marcus is this: always treat the ladies with kindness. She insists that he promise to do that no matter who he gets involved with. In those later scenes with Charlene, when childhood admiration turns to deeper grown-up emotions, you immediately observe that he was clearly listening.
50 Cent does something particularly well here. He doesn’t demand that you care about him and he doesn’t beg for your sympathy. Cheap manipulation isn’t part of his incredibly strong constitution. He tells his story as directly as he can with no sugarcoating of his regretful actions. We witness him target people for murder and selling death to customers one dimebag at a time. Yet, you still find yourself rooting for him, especially in the final act when he learns some things that bring about confusion and tremendous rage. We admire his strength, his determination to change his ways after a tough prison sentence and his natural devotion to his mother and his girlfriend. He’s very much his mother’s son which makes her death all the more tragic. You realize in time that any mob-related profession requires one to perform tasks completely at odds with one’s own personality. As a result, Marcus has a hard time opening the door emotionally to those in his inner circle, especially Charlene. His music becomes a necessary outlet for all of the emotional turbulence flowing throughout his bullet-riddled body.
The performances here are really strong, as previously noted. But I want to single out Terrence Howard, in particular, who does great work playing 50 Cent’s prison confidant. Try as you might, you can never catch him in a false note. He’s as brilliant in this movie as he was in Crash. Here’s hoping he gets offered more interesting parts like this one in the future. It looks bright for him.
There’s a rare authenticity here that serves as a powerful education for the easily seduced. Drug dealing on these unwelcoming city streets is long, tedious, unrewarding and scary. Advancement is impossible. Death, all but certain unless you exit immediately. But even then, like a career in pornography, you can never really escape it. It’s the ultimate stalker and no restraining order will ever keep it at bay. Pungent with the permanent odor of desperation and sadness, it is indeed a miracle that Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson ever made it out of this nowhereland where hope and freedom are forever elusive. If only rap could rescue the less talented.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, November 5, 2007