Given the gangsta’ rappers unwritten rule about keeping it real, one might be surprised to see 50 Cent hire a 56 year-old, white director from Dublin to tell the story of his life. But that's exactly what we have in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a docudrama about a New York drug dealer who wants to be a hip-hop star.
Street credibility aside, no one could possibly question Sheridan's cinematic credentials, since the six-time academy Award-nominee has made such critically acclaimed pictures as My Left Foot (5 Oscar nominations, 2 wins), In the Name of the Father (7 Oscar nominations), The Boxer (2 Golden Globe nominations), The Field (1 Oscar nomination) and In America (3 Oscar nominations).
Yet, all but one of Sheridan's previous outings were filmed in his native Ireland, and even his autobiographical In America revolved around the arrival of his family upon these shores. Recently, in a rich brogue, he shared his thoughts about taking on the challenge of making a movie exploring topical African-American themes.
Kam Williams (KW): What interested you in this project?
Jim Sheridan (JS): I was always interested in rap, from the Eighties, when I came to New York. At that time, it was kind of very Caribbean-influenced, by reggae. I had tried to have a band myself before U2 in Ireland, but I wasn't that good a singer. So, I liked narrative songs, because I was a little bit tone-deaf.
And rap's narrative, not dependent on being a great singer. I had known all the black narrative guys from way back, Cab Calloway, and a man who gets no respect, Oscar Brown, Jr. He was a great narrative writer. A lot of his songs were stolen by people before a black artist could really be on Broadway. He wrote some great musicals.
KW: How did you get from that to 50 Cent?
JS: In the Nineties, I was really interested in Public Enemy and NWA. I remember talking to Bono about it, and they were like, ’Rap is a phase.’ But I sensed that rap was the movies that Hollywood wouldn’t make. What you're hearing in rap is actually what the people feel, as opposed to what the middle-class thinks they feel. The white kids now feel that a lot of the media are lying to them. Whether it's true or not, they believe the rappers are telling them the truth. For a lot of boys there's no way to grow up anymore, no initiation. So, the violence is like a drug, and they have to believe it's real. Every male kid feels that.
KW: Do you prefer to listen to rap yourself?
JS: Yeah, I remember playing Snoop Dogg while driving down Sunset Boulevard in a Mustang convertible and there's this young kid who's looking at me, this 50 year-old about guy from Europe listening to, ’Yo, bitch!’ I remember that just the look in his face was like off the scale. It was one of those Snoop Dogg albums that was really out there.
KW: Does that way the music refers to females bother you?
JS: I'd rather that be expressed than not be expressed. Sometimes you’ll find a spiritual truth in there that needs to come out to defuse a situation. I kind of understand the misogynistic feeling of it. A lot of teenage boys feel like they’re scared of women. And then in the black culture, a lot of the black kids, like 50 and Tupac, were with single-moms.
So there was nobody to rebel against except the woman. Therefore, the rebellion sometimes turns into low-level denial like ’Yo, bitch!’ or ’You whore.’ So, the women get separated into Madonna and whores real quick.
KW: How did you convince 50 to trust you to tell his story?
JS: I talked to him and said, ’If this goes wrong, it’ll be my fault.’ I said that to take the pressure off the performer. And he knew I could direct it because I'm aggressive. What he said to me was, ’I know you're aggressive enough to direct it.’ I didn't realize how aggressive I was till I made this movie. I have an angry that suits 50.
KW: In the end, how was it working with him?
JS: I've worked with Daniel Day-Lewis and that was a mind-blowing experience. Working with 50 was similar, but in different ways. He's very humorous, self-confident and gentle. I totally loved him at the end of it.
KW: Do you think maybe your Irish heritage helped enable you to tell a black story?
JS: Yeah, I was a kid when the Irish were marching for civil rights in 1967.
There has to be a Bill of Rights to get civil rights, and there was no Bill of Rights in Ireland. So, the Irish in Northern Ireland were following Martin Luther King, a spiritual person who said everybody should be equal.
They were saying, ’We could be equal to the blacks in America.’ That's a complete inversion of the way people normally saw it.’ The tragedy in Northern Ireland was that we didn't have a spiritual leader of the caliber of King, and the tragedy here was, having had that leader, he was martyred.
KW: Do you think the African-American and Irish cultures are similar?
JS: I'm not of the opinion that black culture is very similar to Irish. I think there's lots of differences, although we went through famines. When I was looking at New Orleans, I thought, ’Wow, the Irish famine was just like that except we didn't have a vote.’ It was like two million, three million died because we didn't matter in the voting apparatus of England.
KW: What do you think of Samuel L. Jackson's turning down this picture because of his refusal to work with rappers?
JS: I didn't myself meet him or ask him. You know how things go through agents? But I think he was silly to say that without waiting to see how good 50 would be. In Ireland, we have a thing called ’Begrudgers.’ People who begrudge you success. In the black community here I think it's the same here. It happens whenever there's oppression. The thinking is, if you're very successful, then you must have crossed a line. That seems to be endemic in the culture. The Samuel L. Jackson attitude is a tiny thing. But it is there, even in all the rap songs and the dis mentality. There's two sides two it. One is about tribal, African macho manhood. The other side, which is not so nice, is about slavery. That's why rap is completely fascinating. It has both edges all the time.
KW: Why do you think 50 Cent is so admired?
JS: He has that Muhammad Ali quality. If you say to a culture, ’You can't brag. You can't express what you feel. You have to stay in your place,’ eventually when you press hard enough, you're going to get a diamond. So, you get Muhammad Ali, you get 50 Cent. They’re like ’[Expletive] you!’ but saying it like entertainment.
KW: didn't Ali and 50 stand for very different things?
JS: 50 and the rappers take capitalism at face value. I think that black culture in America is now expressing what many outside people feel. Up to this, it's been the Black Panthers, political movements and ’I'm Black and I'm Proud.’ That didn't catch on because it's a minority culture. You can't have bloody armed rebellion when you're such a minority. It's suicidal and insane. Now it's like, let's just take this capitalism at face value and go for it. So, for me, being an old socialist, it's kinda’ got a great contradiction. Here's all this capitalism, but everybody's scared to hell of it.’
KW: Is Get Rich or Die Tryin’ a black or white movie?
JS: I didn't want feel like I was making a ghetto black movie. I was just doing it like I do it. That was my attitude. That issue only came up with people concerned about what screens we're going on and what cities we're playing in. In real estate it's location, location, location. I understand that in commercial movies it's identify, identify, identify. Does the audience identify? Within the studio system, a black urban movie is a black urban movie, and white kids won’t identify. So, the question for us was, ’How do you get the cinema to crossover to where music is?’ That's what we're dealing with here. How do you make one meet the other?
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