Critics Take Issue with 'Get Rich' Marketing Strategy

Paramount has been marketing Get Rich or Die Tryin', about the life of the rapper 50 Cent, with billboards that feature images of guns. Critics have accused the ad campaign of promoting violence.

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Today, Paramount releases the new movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." It's based on the violent past of rapper Curtis Jackson, who is also known as 50 Cent. The movie is making news because of violence suggested by the ad campaign, as NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Unlike some rappers who have been accused of buffing up their resumes, 50 Cent has all the street credibility that anyone in his line of work might desire. He was born in Queens to a 15-year-old mother, a drug dealer who died as the result of foul play when she was just 23. 50 Cent started dealing drugs himself at 12. Some years later, as he was launching his rap career, someone pumped nine bullets into him.

(Soundbite of music)

50 CENT: (Rapping) Greedy men who step upon me, blood in my eyes, dog, and I can't see. I'm trying to be what I'm destined to be, and (censored) trying to take my life away. Come on. What up?

MASTERS: The movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" is based on the rapper's life and depicts these incidents.

(Soundbite of "Get Rich or Die Tryin'")

Unidentified Woman: So what do you do?

50 CENT: I'm a gangster.

Unidentified Woman: No, really, what do you do?

50 CENT: I'm a rapper.

Unidentified Woman: Seriously, Marcus, what do you do?

50 CENT: I'm a gangster rapper.

MASTERS: What sparked outrage among some officials and activists is the billboard campaign promoting the film. One image depicts 50 Cent's heavily tattooed back. His arms outstretched, he holds a microphone in one hand and a gun in the other.

Ms. LETICIA JAMES (New York City Councilwoman): We're here today to denounce Paramount Pictures for putting billboards in inner-city communities, billboards that peddle violence to inner-city children.

MASTERS: That's New York City Councilwoman Leticia James at what she hoped would be a rally against the billboard last week. Crowds did not materialize, but she and two other council members nonetheless expressed their outrage. Critics say Paramount distributed some ads with a picture of 50 Cent without any gun but placed the billboards with guns near troubled schools and housing projects where they would do the most harm.

Ms. JAMES: The fact that they are only targeting inner-city children is offensive.

MASTERS: Paramount denies that allegation, but facing protests in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, the studio acknowledges it has removed some billboards. It won't say how many were on display in the first place, how many were taken down and how many remain. In an interview with Reuters, 50 Cent dismissed the controversy, citing the prevalence of guns in movies generally. The film's director is Jim Sheridan, an Irishman whose previous work includes "My Left Foot" and "In America." He also thinks the protests are overblown, in part an attempt to exploit 50 Cent's notoriety, but he's not against removing the billboards in question.

Mr. JIM SHERIDAN (Director): I understand those poor black people who are trying to defend the situation where it's out of control, where, you know, within their community, people are being killed and murdered, and it's black-on-black violence and they're trying to educate their own people not to be like that.

MASTERS: Sheridan says he's horrified by the idea that anyone would be inspired to violence by the billboard for this movie.

Mr. SHERIDAN: And it strikes me deep that they would feel upset at something I do, that I'd be trying to endorse that. Not me. I'm not trying to endorse that.

MASTERS: But Sheridan thinks the protests may miss the point. Guns are so much a part of American culture, he says, that there's no reason to single out one movie ad. The focus should be on a different question.

Mr. SHERIDAN: Why have these kids got AK-47s? Who gives them to them? Who supplies them? And why can it not be stopped?

MASTERS: At the same time, Sheridan says he understands why the billboards might be stirring up so much feeling. The fact that 50 Cent is playing a character based on himself makes the image very real, he says.

Mr. SHERIDAN: I had the constant problem in the movie myself, and it worked like this. I couldn't have 50 Cent's music in the movie 'cause it wasn't about 50 Cent, but I couldn't have 50 Cent kill the bad guy at the end 'cause he was 50 Cent. It kept crossing back and forth between reality and non-reality for me.

MASTERS: Still, Sheridan says he was aiming for what he calls a positive outcome. So in the movie, the character played by 50 Cent doesn't shoot to kill and he is not a misogynist. Sheridan says those were his choices and 50 Cent did not stand in his way.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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