Bad Boys and Movie Ads
On Wednesday, rapper 50 Cent's autobiographical flick "Get Rich or Die Tryin" opened amid controversy surrounding the film's advertisements. Billboards depicting 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) holding a gun in one hand and a microphone in the other have recently prompted protests among residents in minority neighborhoods. Emotional calls for swift action sprouted up independently when the ads went up around the country, and subsequently Paramount Pictures and Clear Channel Billboards removed dozens of signs around Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
In response, 50 publicly questioned how his billboards are different from other movie ads depicting guns. And he has a point.
"Bad Boys II" shows Will Smith holding a gun in almost exactly the same pose, but there were no protests against those billboards. However, community organizers say it's not the same thing at all.
"Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are two comedic actors. Their roles [in 'Bad Boys II'] -- young children know it is nothing but fantasy and make-believe, but 50 Cent is a real-life image," said Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. "50 Cent represents the worst in gangsta rap. He glorifies gang violence, misogyny, drug and alcohol abuse, and he resonates with young urban males."
The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of the 2002 Pepsi-Ludacris controversy. Then, Bill O'Reilly called for a Pepsi boycott when the company hired Ludacris as a spokesman. Devoting several episodes of the "O'Reilly Factor" to the topic, O'Reilly cited Ludacris' "vile" lyrics as reason to kick him off Pepsi's roster of talent. Ultimately, Pepsi did fire Luda and O'Reilly got his way. This time, however, the call to action did not come from rich white guys on the right, but rather from people of color who are sick of seeing their neighborhoods depicted as gangsta-central.
Even in New York City, the birthplace of hip hop, Daily News columnist Errol Louis protested the billboards, connecting images of thugs with guns to real homicides in the city's neighborhoods. Philadelphia's opposition to the ads took the same tack. Leading the case against the billboards was Men United for a Better Philadelphia, an anti-violence group comprised primarily of black men.
"In Philadelphia, we are over 350 homicides already this year, and the majority of them are young African-American men," said Mark Harrell, director of Men United. "The images of 50 Cent are placed around schools in the African-American community, and they perpetuate the violence in our community." Like the late Senator C. Delores Tucker, who was both revered and reviled for her crusade against violence and misogyny in gangsta rap, these residents are attempting to control the messages that shape perceptions of black youth; they are primarily concerned about the effect of those messages on their own kids.
If we zoom out and look at the larger picture, a couple interesting things come into view. When it comes to gangsta rappers, O'Reilly, some hardcore "family values" Christian groups, and a number of minority community groups have reacted in similar ways. Among those calling for the removal of the "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" ads are African-American groups concerned with civil rights, anti-violence and oppression. However, the leaders of these organizations fiercely resist any comparison to the Christian Right.
"We are definitely not in the same camp," said Ali of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. "Certainly we ascribe to the moral elements that some conservatives do have, but our group also has a social leaning as far as feeding the homeless and serving the disadvantaged that conservatives don't have."
Men United's Harrell agreed: "I think what we are doing is very specific to our mission. We try to stay in our lane and we don't cloud the issue," he said. "We are specific about the fact that our mission is to reduce homicides and violence, that's why we are constantly out in the streets."
While they may occasionally have similar targets, the African-American community groups and right-wing conservatives definitely have different missions in mind. While the right-wing American Family Association and Pro-Life Action League are currently boycotting a doll company, Project Islamic H.O.P.E. is protesting racist language. On Monday, the Project began a letter-writing campaign to request that "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder stop using the N-word in his television cartoon series.
"It is a racist and vile word," said Ali. "Being African-American, I know that in our history in America when slaves and blacks were lynched, what they often heard last as they lay at the end of the rope was the N-word." His moral argument has so far not swayed the cartoonist, but Ali has hopes that appealing to his conscious will work eventually.
So, while the Christian Right continues to believe it has a corner on morality, the Islamic (and African-American) Left is moving in -- albeit in a kinder, gentler way.