How Ice Cube quietly evolved into a Hollywood powerhouse
An ode to Hollywood's most underappreciated secret weapon
After presenting the first award of the 2016 Grammys at the Staples Center, Ice Cube did something unexpected: He left.
"If any of y'all thought I was gonna stay through that three-hour bullshit, you out your batty-ass mind," he growled to his fans over Snapchat. "I'm back in the car, b---h!" The subsequent drag of smoke into the camera suggested this was — in fact — not the move of a responsible, middle-aged family man, but reaffirmation of his OG status. Contrary to popular thought, he seemed to say, there is swagger in getting home at a reasonable hour.
This is Ice Cube's world: a balancing act of studied machismo and subdued confidence. Cube arguably hasn't released a good album since Clinton's decision to enforce UN sanctions against Haiti — but the former voice behind N.W.A. remains a cultural fixture through an array of projects mostly quarterbacked by his production company, Cube Vision, which frequently positions Cube as a comic face.
Still, it would be a mistake to mischaracterize the hardcore rapper's appearance in comedy series like 21 Jump Street and Ride Along as simple self-parody. Some misdiagnose Cube with Eddie Murphy syndrome, in which a previously "dangerous" black entertainer is cast in demeaning, cringe-inducing Hollywood fare. (Murphy's early 2000s output, like Daddy Day Care and Haunted Mansion, have come to define this schlocky subgenre — but the granddaddy is actually Richard Pryor's excruciating The Toy.)
Let's acknowledge what Cube Vision really is: one of the most consistently successful production companies in the business. A cursory glance at Cube-produced films reveals high profit margins, averaging $70 million at the domestic box office against an average budget of $23 million. These films, often dismissed by mainstream critics as middlebrow, are savvy, even opportunistic — particularly when seen against the troubling lack of black stories on screen. Cube has expressed pride in offering a unique product that, critically, always comes in on budget.
Despite making consistently profitable films for an under-served market — which should easily place him in elite company, or at least in the conversation with successful black filmmakers Tyler Perry, Malcolm Lee, and Rick Famuyiwa — Cube's output is often dismissed as "small-scale hood movies." Noisey unfavorably compared his post-Friday movies to Dr. Dre's corporate headphones line.
These pigeonholes miss the arc of Cube's film career, and the way he's consciously positioned himself within a larger frame of black stars in Hollywood. A reappraisal of Cube's career reveals three phases which link him shrewdly and deliberately with — in the words of Barbershop's Eddie — "a sense of history."
Cube's film career was accidental; he hesitated when John Singleton approached him backstage at the Arsenio Hall Show about appearing in 1991's Boyz N The Hood, which eventually became his film debut. At the time, Cube dominated hip hop in a way few ever have, following the rat-a-tat-tat releases of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Kill at Will, Death Certificate, The Predator, and Lethal Injection. After Boyz N The Hood's unexpected success, Cube slowly transitioned into mainstream film work. Singleton encouraged him to try his hand at screenwriting, which led to Friday. In interviews, Cube credits this experience — and his efforts directing, writing, and starring in The Players Club, which arrived several years later — for inspiring him to launch his own production company, Cube Vision, in 1998.
But that's only half the story. As great as the Friday trilogy is — especially for the platform it gave future stars Chris Tucker, Bernie Mac, and Michael Clarke Duncan — it's often inchoate, and doesn't fully explain his evolution from dominant rapper/moonlighting actor to entertainment mogul. In a departure from Ice-T, who mostly settled for direct-to-DVD paychecks after New Jack City, Cube has quietly groomed a well-rounded resume. When discussing Cube Vision, Cube often emphasizes the importance of planning, budgeting time and resources. It's a perspective redolent of Clint Eastwood, another star who learned from genre masters (Sergio Leone, Don Siegel) before branching out.
Cube's follow-up to Boyz was 1992's Trespass, directed by the legendary Walter Hill (The Driver, The Warriors, 48 Hours). Based off an old script from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (Back to the Future), Hill approached the material as an updated Jack London story. It's an evocative, racially resonant story, and its timing was extraordinarily prescient; the original title, "The Looters," was changed on the heels of the L.A. riots. Cube plays the trigger-happy second banana to Ice-T's gang leader, who are pitted against one another in an urban twist on The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
In the years that followed, Cube supplemented his own creative projects like the Friday series and The Players Club with supporting turns in films like Anaconda and Three Kings, opposite George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, and directed by Oscar-nominated auteur David O. Russell. In 2001, Cube starred in Ghosts of Mars, directed by genre legend John Carpenter. Ghosts of Mars began life as Escape from Mars, a sequel to Carpenter's classic Escape from New York, making Cube's Desolation Williams a spiritual fill-in for Snake Plissken, the sci-fi hero originally played by Kurt Russell. Ghosts of Mars flopped, and Cube has since disavowed the film, faulting its small budget for failing the necessary special effects.
But even from the disappointments of his career, he clearly drew a lesson; the film's failure set the stage for Cube's decision to focus on low-risk, character-driven comedies at his own production company. (Ghost of Mars also came with another bonus: It gave Cube a chance to work with Pam Grier, one of the great black stars of '70s Hollywood — and an apt costar, given Cube's track record of referencing classic Blaxploitation films in his lyrics.)
By the '90s, rappers launching acting careers paralleled '70s NFL stars' own entrance to Hollywood via the Blaxploitation genre. This next wave represented a critical, if unsung, step for black voices seeking onscreen recognition. It is no coincidence this period — referred to as the second "Black Hollywood Renaissance" by the likes of CNN and IndieWire — had the cooperation of charismatic hip-hop storytellers like Cube.
Graduating from supporting roles, Cube spoke about the importance of seeing black heroes headline movies, undoubtedly aware of Brown's work in movies like Three the Hard Way and ...tick...tick...tick. He realized the chance to lead his own action film in XXX: State of the Union, taking over the title role from Vin Diesel. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, "Once all action heroes were white. Then they got a black chief of police, who had a big scene where he fired them. Then they got a black partner. Then they were black and had a white partner. Now they are the heroes and don't even need a white guy around."
As absurd as XXX: State of the Union is, there's something refreshing to see the game (if miscast) Cube spar opposite Samuel L. Jackson. In a perfect world — and given Hollywood's propensity for greenlighting sequels to even mildly popular vehicles — Cube's Darius Stone might have been franchised. Unfortunately, audiences didn't embrace XXX: State of the Union; his follow-up action flick, Torque, fared even worse.
Failing to forge a new identity as an action star, Cube has spent the last decade settling into his now ubiquitous role as a straight man. His partners over the years are a Walk of Fame of today's comedy superstars: Chris Tucker, Mike Epps, Tracy Morgan, and Kevin Hart. Recently, critics have reduced Cube's performance in, say, Ride Along as scowling and disinterested. This too undersells what Cube brings to the table, diminishing the long-storied role of straight men in comedy duos. In Jerry Lewis' 2005 memoir, he applauds Dean Martin for his thankless role as his other half, and the same could be said for the way Cube grounds his zanier, mugging co-stars. As he browbeats Kevin Hart, Cube often recalls the discerning Bud Abbott.
The Cube Vision comedies often offer humanistic slices of life. Instead of channeling Fred Williamson, the upbeat, community-oriented Barbershop and Friday series recall the Poitier-Cosby trilogy, which depicted '70s black culture positively. And by eschewing the action hero archetype, the "F--k the Police" rapper has instead reshaped himself as a more lighthearted, extended version of the kinds of stars he idolized onscreen growing up.
While Ice Cube earned oft-withheld critical kudos for producing Straight Outta Compton last year, there remains an appreciation gap given the sheer range of his cinematic contributions over the years. Luckily, Thursday's release of Barbershop: the Next Cut — the first entry in the series in more than a decade — will give audiences a new opportunity to reflect on Cube's onscreen evolution.