Hip-Hop Fridays: Ice Cube Keeps Gangster At Bay by Christian Toto
These days, the last character we expect Ice Cube to play on-screen is a rapper. The erstwhile O'Shea Jackson broke through with the subversive N.W.A., then found a second career on the big screen. However, he rarely plays the kind of gangsta he perfected with his breakout role in 1991's "Boyz N the Hood."
He's been turning his "type" on its ear ever since.
"I've been in the game too long to be a slave to the image," Ice Cube says.
The last vestiges of the 35-year-old's early hard-core persona are dissolved in his latest film, "Are We There Yet?" He plays a swingin' bachelor who falls hard for a mother of two and tries to woo her — and her irascible kids. He plays the straight man to two adorable youngsters, a role that might have gone to Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin or any other comic actor with a paternal side.
Yes, Ice Cube can do warm and fuzzy, too.
"Early in my career, I felt it would be a mistake to do a movie like this," Ice Cube says during a promotional visit to the District. "The more [films] I got under my belt, it just seems natural to try to expand and not get typecast, especially as a rapper. They'd love to typecast me as a rapper."
The L.A. native remains a pack of contradictions. One moment he says he picks films based on their merit, the next that he is seeking a wider audience. He's a happily married father of four who sees no need to censor anything in his rap repertoire.
Ice Cube came to national prominence with the California rap group N.W.A., the prototypical gangsta outfit featuring Dr. Dre and the late Eazy E. The trio's unbridled lyrics angered values groups nationwide, but music buyers, black and white, gobbled it all up.
Ice Cube's subsequent solo career hit similar highs and lows, with critics charging his lyrics offended Korean Americans, among other groups.
Just as his music career was peaking, young filmmaker John Singleton approached him to play the snarling Doughboy in his South Central opus "Boyz N the Hood."
"John saw something in me; he pursued me," he recalls. "I was nervous at first, no doubt, until we started rehearsing."
The turning point? "Once I went to the dailies and said, 'Hey, this looks like a real movie,' " he says.
Audiences and critics keyed in on his natural bravado, and his film career began.
A series of genre films followed, from "Trespass" (1992) to "Anaconda" (1997), but he also made room for Mr. Singleton's well-intentioned miss "Higher Learning" and David O. Russell's acclaimed "Three Kings" (1999).
What stands out most about his film work isn't any one role but, rather, the hat he dons behind the scenes. His Cube Vision production company is responsible for many of his films, typically cobbled together with minimal funding, which all but guarantees a profit.
This player knows the game by heart.
"I hate to be a passive artist," he says of his production duties. It was, who else, Mr. Singleton, who suggested Ice Cube quickly branch out from actor to hyphenate.
"Hollywood's not gonna understand someone like you," he recalls the director advising him.
They know him well enough now to keep him steadily employed. His next film, April's "XXX: State of the Union," finds him subbing for Vin Diesel in the action movie sequel. Then, it's a reunion with Mr. Singleton for "Four Brothers," which will co-star Mark Wahlberg.
True, Ice Cube's rap rep earned him a shot at a movie career, but it's a position greater stars like Madonna have all but squandered.
It took the "Barbershop" features to make us forget his rap roots once and for all. He became the Jimmy Stewart figure of an inner city business strip, a standard-bearer for decency who simultaneously felt the pull of society's darker influences.
Collectively, the features mark his best film work to date.
In conversation, Ice Cube's rap past rarely resurfaces. Occasionally, he'll turn a phrase that has a musical lilt to it, and he visibly delights in the sound.
He swears he's still close to the rap scene, a sound he says grew from Muhammad Ali's "ego and attitude."
"Movies take precedence so far this year," says Ice Cube, adding that he hasn't lost his hard-core touch. "When the wave dies down, I'll get in the studio and drop an album."
The current climate, which chased Howard Stern off terrestrial radio and "Private Ryan" off broadcast television, doesn't scare him a whit, he promises.
"I kinda never let the political climate dictate what I do," he says. "Hopefully, some toes will be stepped on, just to make sure people are alive and paying attention."
Note: This article first appeared in The Washington Times
Friday, January 21, 2005