Tuesday, January 10, 2006

When the Shillelagh
Meets the Hood

Part Four: Maybe It's
Because I'm Irish

I would like to start with the seemingly trivial item that inspired this inquiry. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a news item stating that Ireland's Jim Sheridan would be directing the 50 Cent biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Not only that, but the movie would be filmed, at least partially, in Dublin. I immediately forwarded the notice to a few friends who write about film. Jeff Shannon, a contributor to The Seattle Times, wrote back with a message that said something along the lines of, "I can just see it now—'Fiddy' strollin' down the mean streets of Dublin with a shillelagh in one hand and a forty in the other." Hence the title of this series. (Incidentally, I must confess that I didn't know what a shillelagh was at the time; his email encouraged me to do some research.)

To me, Jeff's response represented the coming together of two cultures—and two stereotypes. I couldn't quite get my head around the concept of a 50 Cent film helmed by Jim "My Left Foot" Sheridan and yet, somehow, it made perfect sense. I decided it was time to examine this relationship further. Why did it seem so odd and yet so right? Hadn't Eminem and Curtis "L.A. Confidential" Hanson seemed like the ultimate odd couple prior to the release of 8 Mile? Who says an Irish man can't be "street"? Certainly not me!

Get Rich or Die Tryin', a film about a famous African-American figure directed by an Irish filmmaker isn't, of course, something completely new. What makes it significant, for the purposes of this piece at any rate, is that it's a more extreme manifestation of a development within the motion picture industry that's been building over the past decade, which is to say, "black" movies made by white directors and "white" movies made by black directors. I can think of plenty of examples of both, but when
you add the word "Irish" to the equation, they become scarce.

One of my favorite "Black Irish" movie moments occurs in Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994) when Tim Robbins' Andy first meets Morgan Freeman's Red (who doesn't, of course, have red hair). Both are incarcerated at Stephen King's fictional Shawshank correctional facility. "Red. Why they call you that?" Andy asks. "Maybe it's because I'm Irish," Red replies. Andy appears to accept Red's reply at face value and doesn't ask for clarification. What I love about the line, which is delivered perfectly—i.e. it's thrown away—is that it says nothing, yet it
says so much. Freeman's character may well be Irish, but how did he get that way? Except for his freckles, Red doesn't look Irish—or he looks nothing like the Irishmen usually depicted on screen. (Ten years later, Freeman would utter the line, "It seems there are Irish people everywhere—or at least people who wanna be," in Million Dollar Baby, the film for which he finally won the Oscar.)

In "How Green Was My Surname; Via Ireland, a Chapter in the Story of Black America" (The New York Times, St. Patrick's Day 2003), S. Lee Jamison notes, "So many African-Americans have Irish-sounding last names—Eddie Murphy, Isaac Hayes, Mariah Carey, Dizzy Gillespie, Toni Morrison, H. Carl McCall—that you would think that the long story of blacks and Irish coming together would be well documented. You would be wrong.
Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of Interracial Intimacies; Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, said that when it comes to written historical exploration of black-Irish sexual encounters, 'there are little mentions, but not much.' And most African-Americans do not know a lot about their family names." Jamison adds, "But the Irish names almost certainly do not come from Southern slaveholders with names like Scarlett O'Hara. Most Irish were too poor to own land. And some blacks, even before the Civil War, were not slaves."

As it turns out, Freeman's character was never written as African-American. In King's original novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, he's Irish-American (and his full name is Ellis Redding). Arguably, the line is in there as a nod to the author's original intent and as a joke. The audience—including myself—laughed. But why is it funny? And why did I laugh when I read Jeff's email about "Fiddy" and his shillelagh? Was it because movies like Leprechaun V: Leprechaun in Da Hood, with Ice-T and Coolio, and its follow-up, Leprechaun VI: Back 2 Da Hood, had already decided Irish plus black—stereotypes, that is—equals hilarity? (Probably not, but I couldn't resist mentioning them.)

Continuing into the 1990s and 2000s, more white filmmakers began making movies about black characters. Examples include Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker (who had previously worked with Neil Jordan in The Crying Game), Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown with Pam Grier, and more recently, Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow with Terrence Howard, which was produced, in turn, by John Singleton.

This wasn't a new thing either, but the number of such films was. At the same time this development was taking place, more black filmmakers were making films with white characters as leads or co-leads. Examples include Spike Lee's 25th Hour with Edward Norton and Singleton's Four Brothers with Mark Wahlberg and Garrett Hedlund as white adopted brothers and Tyrese Gibson and André "3000" Benjamin of Outkast as their black brothers—and yes, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the word "brother." Incidentally, Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan plays their mother.

That same year, 2005, witnessed the release of the poorly-received Honeymooners remake, featuring a mostly-black cast (led by Cedric the Entertainer of Barbershop fame). But what makes it notable is that it was filmed in Dublin, standing in for New York. The fact that the movie wasn't a hit, either critically or commercially, did not serve to diminish the attractions of Dublin as a low-cost alternative for New York. Which brings us to Get Rich or Die Tryin', the semi-fictional story of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. Filmed in New York, Toronto, and Dublin, the gritty drama is set in the South Bronx. Sheridan's previous feature, In America, which was also based on a true story—his own—took place in New York, specifically Hell's Kitchen, where he spent time as a boy. The film, which was released in 2002, featured the first major black character to appear in a Sheridan-directed picture, an African artist dying of AIDS played by Amistad's Djimon Hounsou.

Born in Dublin in 1949, writer/director Sheridan's best known movies include My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, and
The Boxer. All three feature Daniel Day-Lewis, who won the Oscar for 1989's My Left Foot (and also appears in Martin Scorsese's Irish-American epic Gangs of New York). In addition, he has produced a number of Irish pictures, including Terry George's Some Mother's Son with the aforementioned Ms. Flanagan, Jordan's The Butcher Boy, and Paul Greenglass's Bloody Sunday. George, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, most recently directed Hotel Rwanda with Don Cheadle, while Sheridan's next project, according to the Internet Movie Database, appears to be a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, co-written by Richard Price who, as a screenwriter, is best known for Spike Lee's Clockers, John Singleton's Shaft remake, and HBO's "The Wire."

Due to Sheridan's involvement, it should come as little surprise that Irish talent is all over Get Rich or Die Tryin'. The film
was shot by Irish-American cinematographer Declan Quinn (brother of actor Aidan Quinn) and the score is by Quincy Jones with Maurice Seezer and Gavin Friday. As with 8 Mile's Eminem, who originally signed 50 to Shady Records and co-produced
the film, 50 Cent plays aspiring rapper Marcus, aka "Little Caesar." (Marcus possibly being a nod to his son Marquise.)

As an actor, 50 Cent isn't bad, but he's far from great. In the
film, however, his minimalistic performance is greatly enhan-
ced by that of some of today's most talented African-American actors. They include Viola Davis (Far From Heaven, Antwone Fisher) as his grandmother, Joy Bryant (also from Antwone Fisher) as his girlfriend, Adawale Akinnouye-Agabe ("Oz," "Lost") as his mentor, and most significantly, Terrence Howard (Ray, Crash, Four Brothers) as his manager, Bama.

Collectively, the cast helps to overcome 50's shortcomings and those of the script, which excels in depicting Marcus's desire to
get his by any means necessary—be it selling crack or selling rap—but falters in depicting his passion for the rhyme. Maybe this is because as Sheridan told writer Brooke Hauser in 2005, "I grew up in an area of Dublin that was very poor, and there was a lot of heroin. I had fights with kids, addicts, and I had to defend myself." Sheridan adds, "The Irish experience is very close to the black experience, down to the toxic nature of the way we speak."

Ironically, Terrence Howard is considerably more believable
as the pimp-turned-rapper DJay in Hustle & Flow than the real-
life dealer-turned rapper 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin'.
The passion DJay has for his craft is more palpable, just as his desire to give up the hustling game seems more sincere. In actuality, the 50-something Sheridan claims to be a gangsta rap fan, whereas Howard, who is in his mid-30s, told journalist Irini Arakas when she asked the self-taught musician about his musical taste, "I don't listen to hip-hop." According to Arakas, "[Howard] prefers the musical stylings of James Taylor and Paul Simon."

That said, all this talent—black, Irish, and otherwise—wasn't enough to save Get Rich from garnering one of the year's biggest critical drubbings. Granted, it may not have lived up to my expectations either, but the criticism seemed particularly harsh.

For instance, when I visited the IMDb earlier this year, I found that the film is in the site's bottom 100. Out of 10, users have giv-
en it a 2.3, making it the 37th worst film of all time. (1993's Leprechaun, meanwhile, garnered a more respectable 3.8.) Which begs the question, is this a result of hate for 50 Cent, hate for Sheridan, or hate for the movie as a whole? Or was it cursed by
bad pre-release press concerning its perceived pro-violence stance or the actual violence that accompanied its release? Near as I can tell, the answer is: hate for the movie. While I don't think its failure will destroy the careers of anyone involved with it—
50's 2005 recording, The Massacre, was one of the year's biggest—it wasn't the step forward I hoped it would be.

That said, if you look for signs of Irishness in the film, you'll
find them. Granted, you have to look pretty closely, but they're in there. The shooting of 50 Cent, for instance, is staged like an IRA hit. It's late at night, 50 is minding his own business, when a masked gunman suddenly emerges from the shadows and starts to shoot. He doesn't stop until he's plugged 50 nine times, leaving him to die, which of course, he doesn't. In fact, it's where the legend begins. If you've seen Alan Clarke's Elephant (1989), it's hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu while watching this sequence.

In Clarke's experimental piece, one man sneaks up on another
man and shoots him dead, followed by another man sneaking
up on yet another man and shooting him dead. And ad infinitum.
The point being—there is no point. According to the BBC's Justin Hobday, "The title comes from a quote by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty who described the Troubles as like having an elephant in your living room, getting in the way of everything—but after a while you learn to live with it." Clarke's film, in turn, served as the inspiration for Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning Elephant (2003), a fictional look at the Columbine shootings.

Then there's Majestic, played by the imposing Nigerian-born actor Akinnouye-Agabe. In Get Rich, he's 50's drug dealing boss. As Majestic's fortunes rise, he takes to toting a gold-plated cane wherever he goes. It looks suspiciously like a shillelagh. Granted, a walking stick can't be considered an authentic shillelagh unless it's made from Blackthorn wood—supposedly the only wood harder than an Irishman's skull—but let's not split hairs. At the film's conclusion, the stick is revealed as a weapon and, for what may be the first and last time in the history of the cinema, Irish stick-fighting finds its way into a hip-hop film.

I may be biased, but I refuse to believe the failure of Get Rich
or Die Tryin' had anything to do with Sheridan's Irishness—
or even his age. After all, 8 Mile was considered a success and Hanson is from the same generation (he's four years older), just not the same country. As for race, I don't think it should make
a difference. 1973's legendary Wattstax, after all, was directed
by Mel Stuart, a Jewish-American, and it's one of the blackest films ever made—and yes, it just happens to feature an absolutely jaw-dropping performance from that great Irish-American black man, Isaac Hayes, who also appears in Hustle & Flow.

And despite Sheridan's purported affection for rap, there's a difference between liking a genre and truly understanding it. In Get Rich, unlike Hustle & Flow, I never felt that he, or screenwriter Terence Winter, who's best known for his work on The Sopranos, ever really had a feel for the milieu. Had 50 Cent simply been cast as a drug-dealing dreamer who isn't able to make it as a rapper, it would have been a better film and, arguably, a more honest one. After all, even DJay's success in Hustle & Flow isn't presented as a fait accompli. At the end of Brewer's film, DJay emerges from jail with an undergound hit on his hands, but there's no guarantee that he—like his former hero, Ludacris's Skinny Black—is ever really gonna make it. Although it probably never would have occured to Sheridan, or to anyone else involved in Get Rich, a film about Erik "Everlast" Schrody ultimately would have made for a better fit between subject and director. In the meantime, I'll keep my fingers crossed for Neil Jordan's take on the Kanye West Story—now that's a movie I'd be first in line to see!

Note: Images of Jim Sheridan (on the set) and Curtis "50
Cent" Jackson with Terrence Howard from ShowbizIreland.


(deletia)'s land of happy fun said...

"shillelagh" is spelt wrong. unless your speaking American.

kathy fennessy said...

Thanks for our comment. "Shillelagh" is the accepted American spelling and, alas, I'm a Yank. Cheers!