In January, when Samuel L. Jackson was offered a role in “Get Rich Or Die Tryin,'” the industry veteran vehemently turned it down, saying “What is it about 50 Cent that makes Jim Sheridan say I’d really like to make a movie with him?” In recent interviews, Jackson has held his ground, making a point to publicly disparage rappers in movies, claiming they’re taking jobs away from legitimate actors solely due to their selling power. Shots have been volleyed across the cultural divide, with rapper/actor Ice Cube challenging Jackson to “step up to the mic” and 50 calling him a “crackhead.” RZA, who’s making his Hollywood debut in “Derailed,” certainly has a stake in the argument.
As the axis of the greatest rap crew in history, the Wu-Tang Clan, the man has enough rap cred to fill silos throughout the greater Midwest. As an actor, he’s unproven, but still firmly entrenched in the belief that his hip-hop background endears him to the movie industry.
“We need to take the word ‘hip hop’ off the word ‘hip-hop artist’ and just say ‘artist.’ And an artist can play any role – whether he’s singing, whether he’s dancing, whether he’s acting. It’s all part of his artistic expression,” he said.
“This hip-hop generation has a lot of different interests, from comic books to kung fu to sci-fi to Westerns to bungee jumping. And that’s what you’re starting to see in hip hop, these young kids who listened to all this different music and watched all these different movies all their lives stepping up.”
He shouldn’t fear a bias, as the concept of the rapper-actor has come a long way since the days of “Disorderlies” and “Cool As Ice.” With Mos Def established as a well-received character actor and performances by Queen Latifah garnering Oscar nominations, it’s illogical to declare that rappers can’t act.
Of course, that’s not to say that the current rap-to-reel track record is spotless. Considering that “Get Rich Or Die Tryin’,” a loose adaptation of the rough-and-tumble life of its star, is just a revisiting of the “8 Mile” concept, one can see that the film industry is as quick to rehash a formula with marginally talented rappers as it is with actors. That is, of course, the burden of the industry opening the doors, not the rappers walking through them. If the opportunity exists for mutual profit, why not take it?
For RZA, though, “Derailed” is more than a shot at a lucrative side job. Saying acting was always a childhood fantasy, RZA also expressed a desire to one day move to directing.
“That’s why I’ve taken a mentorship under Quentin Tarantino. He’s my big homey. He can send me to the store at two in the morning and I’ll go. To increase your form in another avenue, you have to find a good master. To humble yourself in front of greater talents is something I learned from martial arts.”
RZA is supremely confident in his abilities but still displays a touch of any neophyte’s trepidation. “If all the critics come out after ‘Derailed’ and go, ‘Yo, don’t you never get in front of no camera again, you big shiny forehead motherfucker!,’ I might have to think about that.”
Ultimately, the cinematic pursuits of RZA and his rap contemporaries demonstrate that there is no need to pigeonhole talented artists. If rappers feel they can cross mediums, at least give them a shot to swing the bat. As Ice Cube put it, “Yeah, there’s a lot of rappers that can’t act. But there’s a lot of actors who can’t act, too.”