Wu-Tang has been immersed in kung-fu for so long, it was inevitable that one member of the Clan would make a major appearance in a martial arts movie at some point. The RZA appeared briefly in Ghost Dog in 1999, but only for a passing moment, though he did produce the soundtrack. In The Man with the Iron Fists, RZA is doing a lot more from writing and directing to acting and putting together the music (which is awesome, by the way). He did pretty much everything except hold the boom. That got us thinking about other rappers who have ventured into the movie business. So, in honor of the RZA's new flick, we decided to run down the ten best movies featuring rappers in front of the camera.
10. How High (Method Man, Redman) Not necessarily one of the best movies featuring rappers, unless you're in the right... ahem... mind state, How High is nevertheless a carefree, fun back to school romp that extols the virtues of every rapper's favorite plant. The stars, Method Man and Redman, while not the most refined actors in the classical sense, manage to enchant the screen with their sophomoric magnetism. As an added bonus, Cypress Hill makes an appearance to DJ a college house party that the two Wu-students throw. "Study high, take the test high, get high scores" -- this is the logic that permeates How High.
9. Belly (Nas, DMX) Flushed at every angle in '90s rap culture, this superbly shot, extremely stylish flick, written and directed by Hype Williams, the most influential music video director in hip-hop, is well-loved by the audience that has always cherished Williams's work, even if it has long been forgotten by nearly everyone else. With Nas and DMX starring, Method Man in a supporting role, AZ making an appearance, plus the countless references made to the film by various rappers, Belly is a must-see for every hip-hop head.
8. Friday (Ice Cube) Underappreciated due in large part to the terrible sequels made in its name, Friday is a movie with heart, romance and most of all humor. Ice Cube, as Craig, is the focus and star of this film, and he doesn't flounder, though it is Chris Tucker who steals the show, turning in one of his most hilarious and genuine roles as the loveable stoner, Smokey. The majority of the film consists of Craig and Smokey dicking around on a Friday after Craig gets fired (on his day off, no less), but the film does turn serious, and when it does, it doesn't disappoint.
7. New Jack City (Ice-T) Before Ice-T was a detective on television, he was a detective in New Jack City -- yeah, the same guy who helped invent gangsta rap and penned the infamous "Cop Killer." Funny how things work that way. This 1991 Scarface re-imagination focuses on an inner-city crack dealer played by Wesley Snipes, and though the story has been told before, director Mario Van Peebles (who also plays Sergeant Stone) infuses the film with his own dramatic old-school flair.
6. Gridlock'd (2Pac) A film that took on extra relevance due to its release after starring actor Tupac Shakur's death, Gridlock'd was a powerful movie in its own right. Telling the story of drug-addicted musicians, Spoon, played by Shakur, and Stretch, played by Tim Roth, Gridlock'd somehow manages to be endearing, political, funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. In his final performance, 2Pac shows once again that he is almost the force on screen that he is on stage.
5. 8 Mile (Eminem) Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, aka Rabbit, aka pretty much himself, in this roughly biographical 2002 flick that deals with surviving the underground Detroit rap scene with an added touch of race politics. At its heart, 8 Mile is a story of friendship, loyalty, family, money and, above all, determination. Here, Eminem makes it cool to be white trash, so long as you haven't given up on yourself (while providing a feature-length video to the song of the year, "Lose Yourself"). The film culminates with a series of three intensely cathartic rap battles set in a dive-y venue based off of Eminem's favorite hometown performance spot, the Hip Hop Shop. Plus, Eminem's late best friend Proof makes a brief appearance and Eminem's character battles Xzibit's (see above).
4. Men in Black (Will Smith) In this uproarious 1997 comedy, Will Smith plays a bright-eyed and eager police officer recruited by a secret agency known as the Men in Black. Early on the job, an important intergalactic figure with a very important jewel is killed by a "bug" in a stretched out human suit. The rest of the film details Smith (Agent J) and his mentor, K, racing to get the jewel before the bug does. Will Smith is never more hilarious than in this essential sci-fi-funny. Men in Black does more than just make us laugh, though; it makes us look at the stars, and even the people around us, and wonder. And for the credits, as an added bonus, Will Smith even kicks it old-school in his typical, ultra-clean, somewhat corny style.
3. Hustle & Flow (Ludacris) Though Ludacris doesn't get a lot of screen time in this 2005 film, he does play a key role as Skinny Black, the legendary Memphis rappper that protagonist DJay works throughout the whole movie to eventually meet and eventually does. While Terrance Howard earned an Academy Award nod for his portrayal of DJay, for the relatively short time Luda is on screen, he too shines. Of the many rap-themed films out there, this one tops our list for its gritty authenticity, and though most tell the familiar and well-worn story of the relatable underdog, DJay is paradoxically the least likeable and the one with the most heart.
2. Juice (2Pac) 2Pac plays the role of Roland Bishop in the 1992 film Juice, a character he describes as "a psychotic, insecure, very violent, very short-tempered individual." The plot involves four friends, who call themselves "The Wrecking Crew," who get caught in a trap of their own making. Q, played by Omar Epps, and Bishop seem to be archetypal of the two ways to handle a dangerous situation, and their relationship shows how a close friend can ultimately be much more dangerous than an enemy. Rappers are often recruited in movies for their star quality and little else, but 2Pac is the most dynamic character here out of a well acted ensemble.
1. Boyz n the Hood (Ice Cube) Boyz n the Hood is one of those rare pictures that manages to capture the spirit of a culture at a given time and place, and that place and time was South Central, Los Angeles, 1991. What makes the story so captivating is the familiarity of the characters; they are just any group of friends, ones who we all grew up with -- everybody is portrayed with humanity and sympathy, creating a narrative that is less us versus them as us versus us. The familiar trope of revenge is explored, but so skillfully done that we get caught up in the emotion. We see how exceptional a person it really takes to break the cycle of violence. Ice Cube, for his part, is not that person, nor would we expect him to be. He plays the street smart and fiercely loyal Doughboy, the kind of person we all hope to have on our side in a fight, and he does so convincingly. The role was probably not much of a stretch for '91 Cube.
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