All About the Benjamins

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

What happens
when rappers run out of steam? Sadly, the industrious ones become actors, and
frequently make movies like Ice Cube’s All About the Benjamins–a
pop project so uninspired its title promotes a hit song by some other
rapper (the ultra slick Sean "Puffy" Combs). Cube’s move to Hollywood
is no longer the ascension one hoped for after his stand-out performances in
Boyz N the Hood, Trespass, The Glass Shield, Three Kings or
the films Friday and The Players Club, which he also wrote and
produced. In those movies it looked like Cube would bring to the screen some
of the insolence and insight of his rap albums. (Surprisingly, the female-centered
The Players Club came closest, in addition to generating one of the best
composite movie-soundtrack albums. Cube’s good tracks there blended in
with representative contributions by a range of artists from Jay-Z, DMX, Scarface,
Master P, Pressha, Brownstone and the comedian Bernie Mac–altogether evoking
a complete r&b/hiphop cycle of human troubles.)

of unrepentant belligerence and mischief, guns, cars, money and bitches–could
have been made by a 13-year-old (white or black) who just embraced those things
as the prerogatives of hiphop culture. And that’s the film’s trouble.
It doesn’t say much for adults–like the now 32-year-old Cube (Oshea
Jackson)–who persists in getting off on only those excesses. Cube wasn’t
the most radical mind in hiphop, but he had one of the most acute voices–expressive,
tough and humorous, prone to saying and having things his way, even if the wrong
way. This may, in fact, be the attitude that allows him to maneuver from the
music industry to the film biz, but one can no longer pay attention to his voice
with the same enthusiasm as before. Judging by Benjamins, Cube doesn’t
seem to have grown artistically. That’s not some haughty dismissal; it
is precisely what’s wrong with the hiphop ethos as it increasingly becomes
managed and replicated by commercial forces.

As Miami bounty
hunter Bucum Jackson, Cube commodifies himself. His tough-guy act is so predictable
it’s practically a shtick–busy kicking white folks’ asses, cursing
back at his boss, balancing a chip on his thick, round shoulders. It’s
still the attitude he professed in his 1991 solo single "The Wrong Nigga
to Fuck Wit." Yeah, Cube is still Cube (a persona so identifiable that
the brilliant comic actor Aries Spears does a definitive impersonation of him
on Mad TV), but his mannerisms in Benjamins do not evoke a distinct
mentality or experience. (Bucum’s penchant for buying $600 tropical fish
just seems wasteful.) Cube has dimmed the individuality that made him an "artist"
and now is just a husky and dusky version of the bad-tempered cops/dicks/bounty
hunters from innumerable routine action flicks.

Anyone who
has followed hiphop knows this comes from the teenage fascination with gangster
flicks and blaxploitation movies that rappers tried to emulate. But after more
than a decade of such juvenile infatuation, rap’s bad-boy emphasis is tiresome.
The amazing fact of hiphop’s late-80s/early-90s peak is that it was–indisputably–better
than blaxploitation. As Public Enemy, Ice-T, L.L. Cool J and De La Soul discovered
their own storytelling form, they produced sounds that were phenomenally exciting–and
expressive. In Benjamins, the diamond-smuggling mad-racist-killer story
Cube presents (his production company is called "Cube Vision") is
as rank as blaxploitation ever was, but worse–because it conveys no sociological

Running out
of ideas this way means a pop artist has also run out of purpose. Benjamins
shows no reason for being made other making money. Director Kevin Bray’s
only visual ingenuity comes during the credit sequence that engraves dollar
bill patterns over still images of Miami lush life. But Bray isn’t establishing
a thematic commentary, it’s just part of his fancy music video background,
and it proves useless for storytelling. Shootouts, chases and fight scenes are
patched together from out-of-scale shots, slo-mo shots and a mix of lenses that
give disruptive, contrasting grain to consecutive images. This could be mistaken
for a new big-screen comic-book style of the Ridley Scott/Michael Bay era, but
it’s so much less coherent and imaginative than the esthetic advances one
used to hear in hiphop records. Benjamins is more evidence of Hollywood
slowing down black pop artists’ creativity–and of hiphop artists (whether
Cube or Method Man and Redman in How High) settling for less.

Rappers have
often defended the violence and vulgarity in their records by pointing to similar
movie exaggerations, but to me that was always a poor argument and a badly chosen
career model. The unexpected pleasure of Cube’s Friday was that
it found meaning and authenticity in areas of American life that mainstream
movie culture overlooked. (In 1995, Friday made more money than Devil
with a Blue Dress
because, though declasse, its humor was also genuinely
serious.) Benjamins sorely needs the same kind of transformation. Opening
with a typical hiphop trope, it shows Bucum hunting down a white miscreant who
watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon containing a racist black caricature–in other
words, sampling Hollywood’s racist past a la Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
But there’s little difference between that misrepresentation and Cube’s
own action-movie caricatures. It’s only late into Benjamins that
the blaxploitation cliches give way to something fresh.

Mike Epps,
Cube’s costar in the lame Next Friday, plays hustling con-man Reggie
Wright, introduced during an overlong shoplifting scam that’s not as delightful
as intended. (Enlisting two retired Jewish ladies in the gag is both kindly
and canny.) Epps is tall and peripatetic, given to silly grievances and feints
of manliness. ("You can’t fight!" says his luscious Latina girlfriend,
played by Eva Mendes.) Much of Reggie’s trash-talking ("I’m allergic
to the judicial system") seems like neo-blackface jive until Bucum handcuffs
him and then makes him a partner in a scheme to abscond with the bad guys’
stolen diamonds. That’s where Benjamins takes on a sly new tone.
When Bucum and Reggie argue, Cube’s rap facility overwhelms Epps’
comedic flair. Cube brings out of himself true brotherly fractiousness, dramatizing
the real-life bases of community antagonism as sharply as a bellicose rap duet–or
a stinging, real-life contretemps. This is not just rapport, it’s the same
hard bond as in Cube’s last great recording, "My Loved Ones"
(on The Players Club CD), which stressed the limits of camaraderie and
family commitment. It’s a better, more complicated sense of friendship
than what goes on between the rich and working-class students who hit the road
together in Y Tu Mama Tambien. In the midst of Benjamins
folderol, there’s something recognizable in Bucum’s exasperation and
Reggie’s flailing–both men’s grownup impatience and their adult
male need for trust.

A rapper and
a comedian must really know how to play the dozens; how to wound and feel. That’s
why the enmity and remorse between Cube and Epps–though brief–strike
deeper notes than Alfonso Cuaron’s trendy, class-denying flirtation. But
Benjamins only has the essence of a developing friendship; it doesn’t
settle into the kind of human exploration that can fulfill a Saturday night’s
entertainment–or that might transcend the junk-movie trap hiphop artists
seem doomed to fall into. If Cube ever learns to trust his maturity, he could
put steam into Hollywood’s rusty old engines. Imagine the unthinkable:
a true hiphop movie revolution.


Bypass the
glib sexploitation fantasy Y Tu Mama Tambien and head for Andre Techine’s
Loin (at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on March 16). Techine
revisits characters from his great Wild Reeds (Stephane Rideau, Gael
Morel) but he also revisits themes from his earlier Les Innocents. The
title means "far," but for Americans "Loin" also hints at
Techine’s knack for sensual depiction of emotional and political need.