50 Cent and Robert De Niro on the Vibe Cover

50 Cent

Robert De Niro and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson made their names bringing gangster mythologies to life. Now they’re sharing the screen together in the new movie Righteous Kill. But how hard is it to live up to the image day in and day out? Excerpted from VIBE’s March* 2008 cover story.
They’re both weird guys. Tough-acting guys, each in his way.

At the photo shoot, De Niro’s early, seated in a director’s chair, reading The New York Times. Looking over the top of his glasses, he asks without speaking, “Where’s Curtis?”

Curtis is stepping off the elevator, looking slim, not quite so superhero about the shoulders. As the bulbs begin to flash, the two of them are a little awkward at first—until Jackson picks up a bat, then a tiny toy pistol, at one point a toy Oscar. When they change into dress suits and ties, they loosen up. On the hanger, the look is very businessman, but the models transform the clothes quickly—to gangsta businessman. There is a menace to these two and an unpredictability. Real, imagined, or engrained by their personas, it’s what they bring, without half trying.

Robert Mario De Niro Jr. and Curtis James Jackson III. No matter what roles they play, no matter what else either of them do—have families, run businesses, write, direct, and produce—De Niro and Jackson are both gangsters. They’ve both made lives of portraying them—50 in real life, onstage, and onscreen, De Niro mostly onscreen—perfecting the pose and madness and especially the cold souls of men who have street mentalities, who have little to no remorse about living lives infused with violence and crime, murder and mayhem.

Jackson, based on his criminal record, his rap records, and the film autobiography, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (in which he played himself), apparently has more tangibles, as an actor, to draw from. But De Niro, who won both his Oscars for playing men who kill at will (young Vito Corleone in Godfather II and Max Cody in Cape Fear) clearly has his mysteries.

De Niro and “50 Cent.” One 64, the other, exactly half his age. De Niro was raised in New York City’s Little Italy by divorced parents (dad was asculptor, painter, and poet; mom was a painter and printer). Jackson was an orphan by age 8, and brought up in his grandparents’ home in Queens, N.Y., with eight aunts and uncles.

De Niro went to a performing arts high school, ran the streets a bit with a lightweight crew—people called him “Bobby Milk” because of his pale skin. Jackson, who boxed as a Junior Olympian, started selling drugs at 12, and served six months in jail in 1994 for selling crack cocaine.

Through his relationships with Jam Master Jay and Eminem, and after a string of now-legendary mixtapes, Jackson realized his dream of becoming rich and of becoming a world-famous MC. Among many other accolades, he’s been nominated for 13 Grammys, won three BET Awards, and two MTV Video Music Awards.

He’s sold more than 31 million albums. And yet somehow, no matter what else he does, every interview comes back to his getting shot nine times. Or was it, as some insist, only five times? It all depends on who’s counting.

In his twenties, De Niro was studying with the best drama teachers of the century, performing Chekhov on the stage when a young director named Brian DePalma cast him in 1969’s The Wedding Party. After the ’74 Oscar for Godfather II (the first of two statuettes from six nominations), there was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Deer Hunter, Cape Fear, The Untouchables (as Al Capone), Midnight Run, Casino, A Bronx Tale, and Heat.

But it was his portrayal of Vito that was the start of De Niro as part of rap culture. If not born of the The Godfather trilogy, hip hop was certainly raised on it. There are too many references from the films in hip hop songs to even begin to count (mostly the first and second one, but also the third, as Michael Corleone struggles to “go legit.”) Even Jay-Z has referred to himself as “Young Vito.” And now, the crisscrossing cross-references come to head: This summer, Jackson and De Niro, along with Al Pacino, star together in Righteous Kill, a $60-million film, that, in shorthand, is about gangsta cops. Pacino, who as Tony Montana (what rapper doesn’t have 1983’s Scarface committed to memory?) has almost as many chromosomes in rap music as Grand Master Caz. 50 Cent, who has appeared on the cover of VIBE as Montana, is now in a film with Vito and Michael Corleone—50 has hit artistic and creative lotto just as hip hop begins turning in on itself.

Yes, Tone Loc was in Heat—the only other time De Niro and Pacino shared the screen together—but all respect to Loc, rap is grown and out of the house now. Rap’s old enough to have its own quarter-life crisis. Aside from being a probable blockbuster, Righteous Kill affords 50 the opportunity to check in on the larger-than-life archetypes he’s been adoring and mimicking all along.

Why do black guys—shit why do guys—identify with Italian-American thugs to the degree they do? Is it simply the idea of gaining—with finesse—power outside the mainstream? That’s something some young black men have been doing—been forced to do—and have been aspiring to do since Emancipation and before. Killing is power. The ability to instill fear and to gain respect is power. The idea of living without regret is seductive. It’s also death on the spirit.

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