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'Get Rich' is the Wrong Message from 50 Cent

ED GORDON, host:

The movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" hits theaters today. The film marks the big screen debut of Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent. It's loosely based on the rapper's own life as a drug dealer, who turns his back on crime in favor of a music career. Even before the film hits theaters, the movie is knee-deep in controversy. Some Los Angeles residents demanded billboards that featured the rapper holding a gun in one hand and a microphone in the other be taken down. The protest caused Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the film, to remove them in some neighborhoods. Commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson was one of the demonstrators. He says the film's thug-to-riches story sends a deadly message.


Let's be clear, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" is not going to send young blacks sprinting from the theaters to commit murder and mayhem in their neighborhoods. It's a movie and there's no smoking gun connect between the violence on the big screen and bodies in the street. Still, "Get Rich" and the hoard of other "Boyz n the Hood" movies that Hollywood churned out over the past decade again raise troubling questions. Why do a handful of influential rap entrepreneurs--and that certainly includes Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson--who are rich and famous beyond their wildest fantasies, brand themselves with a criminal thuggish image and why, despite white fears that young blacks are the ultimate menaces to society, in almost all cases, the victims of the thug-acting rappers are other young blacks?

The first question is easy to answer. "Get Rich" will reap a king's ransom at the box office from exploiting the violent outlaw image of black life. Legions of rebellious young blacks and non-blacks will happily cough up mega-dollars to revel in this image. Few give much thought to the stereotypes that these movies reinforce, films like "Juice" and "Menace II Society" that also purported to give a raw look at the hood, glorified violence, glamorize gangs and ignore poverty and racism. Black critics blame Hollywood for this. Most studio executives know nothing about life in the hood, and as long as they can turn the thuggish image of the ghetto into dollars, they don't want to know.

The young rappers also bear responsibility for promoting the thug image, but as long as it sells, don't expect any apologies or change. In fact, 50 Cent went one better and sneered that protests of the movie's ad campaign, quote, "help me," unquote. The sarcastic and sardonic quip said it all.

Then there's a question of the violence. The self-destructive violence of some young black males, such as pre-50 Cent Jackson, is explained by reflexively finger-pointing at the tumultuous and self-indulgent world of rap music. But black-on-black violence, though exploited, glorified and even celebrated, especially if there's a payoff in it, is hardly an invention of rappers.

In the last two decades, murder has been at or near the top of the list of the leading causes of death of black males under age 25. This is the age group that idolizes rappers such as 50 Cent. Their assailants were not white racist cops or Klan Knight Riders, but other black males. Their death toll has soared because far too many Americans still don't get too excited about black violence, as long as it doesn't spill over the borders of the ghettos into their suburbs.

But pent-up anger is only one cause of the dangerous cycle of black-on-black violence. The tough talk, swagger and mannerisms of black males are defense mechanisms they use to boost their self-esteem. They measure their status or boost their self-worth by demonstrating their proficiency in physical fights, assaults and, yes, murder. "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" may be one man's tale of redemption, but it also exalts the criminal violence that has cost the lives of many black men like 50 Cent. That's a hell of a way to try to get rich.

GORDON: Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a Los Angeles-based author. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson