With Wanted opening this week, starring rapper Common opposite Angelina Jolie (and, I'm happy to see, getting some awesome reviews, making it one of the few movies I may pay to see just for the heck of it), we thought it would be a good time to revisit seven other rappers who've attempted the treacherous transition from rap artist to movie star.
What makes film producers look to rap stars when casting for the big screen? Well, aside from the built-in audience that comes from casting a popular rap performer in a movie role, rappers have to have stage presence to perform, and that charisma and personality can come across well on a movie theater screen. Here are seven of them; let me know which of your favorite rappers I missed. (And before any of you Outkast fans get all worked up: they are hip-hop, not rap, and this post was for the rappers; Outkast is one of my absolute favorite bands, though, and Andre Benjamin in particular, I consider enormously talented. I'll do a whole column on Outkast and what they're up to movie-wise in the near future, promise.)
1. Will Smith -- Smith charmed TV audiences as a teenager in his popular TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air before hitting it big on the silver screen with the triple-whammy of Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), and Men in Black (1997). Since then, more hits have followed, and Smith and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, have become Hollywood royalty; Smith's solid marriage and commitment to his family have earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood's genuine "nice guys," to boot. Smith is one rapper who successfully made the transition from singer to big-name actor, largely due to his charm, charisma and natural talent on the screen. His latest film, Hancock, opens July 2.
2. Queen Latifah -- Queen Latifah started out on the screen way back in 1991's Jungle Fever, and she was great in Living Out Loud (a great, under-seen and under-rated film). The role that signaled her reign as a queen of the big screen, though, was her outstanding performance as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago, which garnered her an Oscar nod for Supporting Actress. She's had several other films since, including a nice turn in Hairspray; I like her best when she gets to both sing and act -- she has such a powerhouse voice that it's a shame to waste it.
3. Ice-Cube -- Since making his big-screen debut in John Singleton's critically acclaimed Boyz n the Hood (1991), Ice Cube hasn't slowed down much. He landed roles in a few other films after that (anyone remember Anaconda?) before showing up in another solid film, Three Kings, opposite another singer-turned-actor, Marky-Mark, aka Mark Wahlberg (who, it turns out, is much better at acting than singing), and George Clooney. Then he was in another decent film, Barbershop (2002), which had Eve, one of my favorite female rappers, as well, before backsliding a notch with 2007's Are We Done Yet? and 2008's First Sunday. Don't worry about Ice Cube, though -- he's got several films in the works, including The Longshots (for which he's listed as producer as well), Janky Promoters (for which he wrote the screenplay and is also a producer), AND he's supposedly producing a big-screen revival of Welcome Back, Kotter! As if all that weren't enough, he's also rumored to be attached to the Mr. T role of Sgt. Bosco "B.A." Baracus in a big-screen version of The A-Team. All that oughta keep him busy for awhile.
4. Ice-T -- He may have a tougher look than nice-guy Will Smith, but Ice-T has done a decent job of transitioning from rapper to actor. He's starred since 2000 on one of my favorite guilty pleasure TV shows, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (I actually like him better when he plays a good guy rather than a gangster), and voiced Madd Dogg for the Grand Theft Auto video game, but he's also put in considerable time in feature films as well. His big breakthrough role was all the way back in 1991, when Mario Van Peebles cast him as Scotty Appleton in New Jack City. His films haven't been terribly noteworthy since then (we'll just kindly overlook his participation in the wretchedly bad Johnny Mnemonic in 1995), but he has a couple of interesting projects in the works for 2008 and 2009, and I'm holding out hope that he'll have a standout performance in one of those that will break him through again.
5. Eve - As aforesaid, Eve is one of my favorite female rappers -- I love her rap contribution to the Mary J. Blige song "Not Today," from the Barbershop 2 soundtrack. Eve, at least in her rapping, comes across as one tough cookie -- if I was a guy, I sure wouldn't mess with her. Onscreen, she's had some decent turns in Barbershop (2002) and Barbershop 2 (2004) as Terri, scored a role in XXX, and had roles in The Woodsman (which was a better film than its box office makes it appear), and Flashbacks of a Fool (2008), which opened in the UK and Portugal but has not, so far as I know, played in the U.S. She's also got a role in Ego, which is currently in production. Eve has yet to see a big Queen Latifah-style breakthrough, but she's got talent and presence, and I'd love to see her really bring it to the next level.
6. Ja Rule -- The Fast and the Furious may not be one of my favorite films, but it is notable for being the first film which really brought rapper Ja Rule to notice as an actor. Since then, Ja Rule hasn't exactly broken through the "serious actor" barrier, but he has been seen in a number of films: Half Past Dead (2002), Scary Movie 3 (2003), The Cookout (2004), Shall We Dance? (2004), Back in the Day (2005), Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), and Furnace (2006). The rapper appears next in a film in the upcoming Don't Fade Away, Luke Kasdan's writing and directorial debut -- we'll have to wait and see on that one.
7. Eminem -- Everyone's favorite grumpy white-boy rapper, Eminem translated his talent for busting out rhymes into a loosely autobiographical life story with 8 Mile (2002), which turned out to be a much better movie than many had expected it to be. As to whether Eminem has any talent for playing characters other than himself, the world may never know -- he has yet to take on another big screen role since 8 Mile. Maybe he should try tackling some Shakespeare or classic lit adaptations, just to stretch his acting wings a bit. Who's with me on Eminem as MacBeth? Or perhaps as the darkly brooding Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Hey, I bet Heathcliff could bust out a rap while wandering the moors in the depths of despair.