Ice Cube

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I recently wrote an essay about the development of the star persona of Ice Cube, the rapper/actor who has made the unusual transition from hardcore gangsta rapper to leading man in such “family-friendly” films as Are We There Yet? The essay, entitled “With an Attitude: The Development of Ice Cube’s Star Persona,” will soon be published in the online film journal 16:9; I’ll link to it as soon as it’s up. The thesis of the essay is that, for all the apparent and unexpected alterations to his “street” persona, Cube’s film characters are nevertheless almost always coded as gangstas – an association that he has not been able (or has not wanted) to shake.

I’ve been a fan of Cube’s music and films for some time, so it was a pleasure to revisit his albums and to see some of his films that I either had not seen, or had not seen in a long while. (I can’t say it was much of a pleasure to see Are We There Yet?, however – it’s quite a miserably made film, for which we may thank uber-hack Brian Levant.)

Deebo!

One of the films that was enjoyable to see again was Friday, a movie I’ve always enjoyed but had not seen in at least ten years. It’s got an easygoing, kind of loosey-goosey charm, and I find it a genuinely funny “slice of life” depiction of a kind of skewed version of South Central Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. Plus it casts as neighborhood bully Deebo none other than Tiny Lister, who is a boon to ANY film.

Friday is Cube’s fifth film, and an interesting one in his career for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s the first film in which he doesn’t play some sort of tough guy (though, as I argue in the 16:9 essay, he’s STILL coded as a gangsta); second, it’s the first of his films over which Cube had a significant degree of creative control. In addition to playing the lead role, Cube co-wrote and executive-produced it. It’s the moment he came into his own as a multimedia star and savvy businessman. He’s managed his career and his public image quite closely, and quite well, it seems to me.

Friday is also important because it has a very high profit-to-cost ratio. According to Box Office Mojo, Friday cost $3.5 million to produce, and returned $28,215,918 in worldwide box-office revenue (97% of which was from US theaters). $28 million does not seem like an immense figure (and if this is true for you, please consider donating to this site – I accept donations as small as $10 million!), but, again, we’re looking at the ratio of profit to cost. Using this key metric, Friday was an immensely successful film, as it made just over eight times what it cost – a very good return on investment. For comparison, look at the profit-to-cost ratio of a recent blockbuster, the nigh-unwatchable Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. This bloated film cost $225 million and racked up an incredible $1,066,179,725. In absolute terms, that’s what we call a Hell of a Lot of Money, but its profit-to-cost ratio is far smaller than that of Friday: about 4.74 to 1.

So Friday is a fascinating film for a number of reasons, but the reason that it interests me here has to do with its narrative structure. Friday eschews many of the conventions of Hollywood storytelling in ways that, curiously, align its storytelling practices with those of European art films of the 1960s and 1970s. Forgive me if some of the next section is Film Studies 101.

For nearly 100 years, Hollywood films have told their stories using roughly the same devices and techniques, for the overarching purposes of coherence and clarity: making potentially complicated stories comprehensible. For this reason, most characters in most Hollywood films are understood to have well-defined goals; stories proceed along a chain of cause and effect, in which one event bring about another, and then that event brings about another, and so forth; and most films’ stories wrap up all their loose ends by film’s end. There are several other important hallmarks of classical Hollywood...
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