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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

It's a Rap Thing

JULY 28, 1997:  By and large, rappers are better actors than most pop stars. That's not saying much (Can you name a Mick Jagger movie?), but the inherent theatricality of the music at least seems like a logical launching ground for other dramatic pursuits. Rap hasn't exactly given us the next generation of Oliviers--check out Ice-T as a, um, kangaroo man in Tank Girl for proof--but there have been successes, both commercial and artistic.

Tupac Shakur's sympathetic performance in Gridlock'd (1997, R) is an example of the latter, even if the film didn't manage to exploit the rapper's gangsta-style death for box office gain. A black comedy about two junkie musicians (Shakur and the grubbily charismatic Tim Roth) trying to kick heroin while being pursued by cops and murderous drug dealers, Gridlock'd sends its heroes through the mind-bending maze of modern social services bureaucracy. They can't get into a methadone clinic because they don't have Medicaid cards. They can't get Medicaid cards because they're not on welfare. They troop from one epic queue to another, until they start to wonder if anybody really wants them to go straight. The social satire, courtesy of writer-director Vondie Curtis Hall, is sharp, and Shakur and Roth give the film a kinetic energy that is both desperate and funny. Given that Shakur's music was mostly trite thug rap and that none of his other movies was particularly memorable, Gridlock'd is arguably the best thing he ever did. It suggests he had dramatic potentials that were only starting to be tapped.

On the other hand, it's possible Tupac would have fallen victim to the Ice Cube phenomenon. The glowering California rapper was the best thing about John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991, R), upstaging even Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. The film was one of the first and best of the '90s ghetto drama genre, and Cube's smoldering performance as a pensive gang member gives it both soul and menace. Unfortunately, he has followed it up with a series of action/comedy throwaways (e.g. Anaconda). Whether he has either the ability or inclination to do more substantial work is an open question.

Of course, the biggest rap-to-riches Hollywood success story is Will Smith, wisecracking warrior of Independence Day, Men in Black, and doubtless other blockbusters to come. But Smith gave his most challenging, complex performance back when he was still better known as the Fresh Prince, in the thoughtful drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993, R). As a young hustler playing on white liberal guilt, Smith brings energy and pathos to the otherwise somewhat stagy film.

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