What makes rappers such compelling movie actors? The screen debuts of T.I. and Big Boi in ''ATL'' inspire a look back at hip-hop's 10 best performances

Rappers in movies: the 10 best performances

Maybe it’s the facility with language, or the practice at telling tall tales. One way or another, a career as a rapper sure seems to prepare MCs for starring roles in movies that earn big box office bucks and — quite often — raves from critics. In ATL (opening March 31), a coming-of-age drama set in Atlanta, local hip-hop heroes Antwan ”Big Boi” Patton (of OutKast) and Tip ”T.I.” Harris (pictured) are the latest chart-topping rappers to attempt such crossover success.

The transition from pop star to movie star used to be a rough one. Before the hip-hop era, only a few top recording artists (Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby) became successful screen stars, while most (Elvis Presley, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Prince, Bob Dylan, David Bowie) had mixed results at best. That changed, however, after Mario Van Peebles cast Ice-T as a cop in New Jack City (1991) and John Singleton cast Ice Cube as a Los Angeles gangbanger in Boyz N the Hood (also ’91). Soon, an ever-growing roster of rappers, including Will ”Fresh Prince” Smith and Queen Latifah, delivered memorable performances that drew throngs to the multiplex.

”Rappers are natural actors,” director Rob Cohen told Entertainment Weekly in 2002. (He directed Ja Rule in The Fast and the Furious and Eve in XXX.) ”Between their videos and their own onstage theatricality, it’s very easy to direct them once you explain the language of film.” Plus, many rappers may have the quality director Curtis Hanson saw in Eminem when he directed him in 8 Mile. ”What he had from the beginning is a natural charisma,” Hanson told EW, ”a thing that makes you interested in watching him and hearing what comes out of his mouth. As frustrating as it is to all the wannabe actors out there, that’s God-given. You either have it or you don’t.”

Do T.I. and Big Boi, both making their screen debuts in ATL, have it? The film marks T.I.’s bid for leading-man status. Big Boi plays a supporting role, but he’ll have a co-starring role opposite his OutKast partner Andre 3000 (a.k.a. Andre Benjamin) later this year in the musical Idlewild. In the meantime, here are the past performances you need to see — by 10 rappers who definitely have it.

Image credit: Boyz N the Hood: Kobal Collection

Ice Cube

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Ice Cube

REAL NAME O’Shea Jackson

RAP PERSONA Gangsta — he helped invent the hardcore-rap genre with his group N.W.A

SCREEN CHARACTER Cube (right) plays Doughboy, a slacker in South Central Los Angeles driven to violent vengeance by the gang-related murder of his brother.

WHY HE’S GREAT In a story not far removed from those he told on his own records, Cube offers a chilling portrayal of hopelessness, futility, and fatalism.

IF YOU LIKE THIS In later movies, Cube went beyond his persona as a scowling tough, becoming the genial pothead of the Friday movies, the working-class striver of the Barbershop films, and, most recently, the grim action hero of XXX: State of the Union.

Image credit: Six Degrees of Separation: Everett Collection

Will Smith

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Will Smith

RAP NAME The Fresh Prince

RAP PERSONA Family-friendly jester

SCREEN CHARACTER Paul, a gay street hustler who passes himself off as the preppy son of Sidney Poitier and takes advantage of several wealthy New York society folk (including Stockard Channing, right)

WHY HE’S GREAT Smith proves a chameleon as Paul, who is cannily aware of cultural stereotypes and presents himself as whatever his new companions expect to see. Despite his deceptions, Paul remains sympathetic, as Smith effectively channels his character’s raw need to belong.

EW VIDEO GRADE B+ (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS The most successful of all rappers-turned-actors, Smith parlayed that ingratiating quality into blockbuster success (as a wisecracking action hero in Independence Day and Men in Black) as well as an Oscar nomination (as the charismatic lead in Ali). He was similarly charming in his recent turn toward romantic comedy, in 2005’s Hitch.

Image credit: Gridlock’d: Everett Collection

Tupac Shakur

Gridlock’d (1997)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Tupac Shakur


RAP PERSONA Thug visionary who embodied the tension between higher spiritual yearnings and the call of the street; after his 1996 murder, he was seen as a martyr who prophesized his own doom.

SCREEN CHARACTER Spoon, a jazz musician who, along with bandmate Stretch (Tim Roth, right), tries to kick drugs and enter a rehab program, only to be frustrated by bureaucracy

WHY HE’S GREAT Shakur effortlessly navigates the movie’s tricky tonal balance between bleakness and farce, and he has a terrific rapport with Roth.

EW MOVIE GRADE B (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS 2Pac may have been the most talented actor to emerge from hip-hop, but his early death made him into a James Dean-like figure of unfulfilled screen promise. He delivered a handful of memorable performances, including a street kid who goes bad in Juice, a romantic lead opposite Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, and a corrupt cop in Gang Related.

Image credit: Living Out Loud: Everett Collection

Queen Latifah

Living Out Loud (1998)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Queen Latifah

REAL NAME Dana Owens

RAP PERSONA Regal figure who’s all about female empowerment

SCREEN CHARACTER Liz Bailey, the house performer at a New York jazz club, a woman whose pattern of attraction to gay men feeds her torch-song heartbreak

WHY SHE’S GREAT Her robust renditions of such cabaret standards as Billy Strayhorn’s ”Lush Life” are showstoppers, but even her outpourings of after-hours romantic misery help her steal the film from top-billed Holly Hunter (as a newly divorced socialite who seeks solace at Liz’s nightspot).

EW VIDEO GRADE A- (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS Latifah displays similar scene-stealing skills as one of four desperate women who turn to robbing banks in the ensemble drama Set It Off, holds her own as a comic opposite Steve Martin in Bringing Down the House, and earned an Oscar nomination as the prison matron in Chicago.

Image credit: Deep Blue Sea: Kobal Collection

LL Cool J

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

The best rappers-turned-actors: LL Cool J

REAL NAME James Todd Smith

RAP PERSONA Suave ladies’ man

SCREEN CHARACTER Preacher, the devoutly Christian cook at an offshore research lab menaced by mutant sharks

WHY HE’S GREAT He manages to maintain his dignity while delivering a much-needed comic-relief performance. The scene where he records his video will, including his recipe for perfect omelettes, is priceless.

EW MOVIE GRADE B- (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS LL displays a similarly light touch as a feckless security guard in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, a running back in the football drama Any Given Sunday, and a romantic lead in Deliver Us From Eva.


Monster’s Ball (2001)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Diddy

REAL NAME Sean Combs

RAP PERSONA Luxe-living, self-made tycoon

SCREEN CHARACTER Lawrence Musgrove, condemned death row convict in a Southern prison, whose guards include Hank (Billy Bob Thornton, right) and Sonny (Heath Ledger, left). His estranged wife Leticia (Halle Berry) has grown close to Hank, though none of them is aware of their mutual connections.

WHY HE’S GREAT More so than on record, Combs is convincing as a hard case (”I’m a bad man,” he tells his young son). As a man numbed by violence, he gives a quiet performance that’s surprisingly poignant.

EW MOVIE GRADE B- (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS Combs tweaks his rap-kingpin status as a crime boss in Made.

Image credit: 8 Mile: Eli Reed


8 Mile (2002)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Eminem

REAL NAME Marshall Mathers

RAP PERSONA Trickster and loose cannon, who’s alternately amused and tormented by his own fame

SCREEN CHARACTER Jimmy ”Rabbit” Smith, a Detroit factory worker who sees rap as his ticket out of his dead-end existence

WHY HE’S GREAT Sure, the character is autobiographical, but Eminem makes palpable Jimmy’s insecurity and desperation, his yearning to find his voice (as during a lunchtime rap confrontation with a rival, played by Xzibit, at right), and his exhilaration when he finally cuts loose on stage. It helps that he’s crafted an Oscar-winning anthem for his character, the urgent ”Lose Yourself.”

EW MOVIE GRADE A- (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS Eminem’s only other screen acting credit to date is a walk-on in the hip-hop comedy The Wash.


Never Die Alone (2004)

The best rappers-turned-actors: DMX

REAL NAME Earl Simmons

RAP PERSONA Thug whose bite is as bad as his rough bark

SCREEN CHARACTER King David, a flashy drug kingpin whose tale is told in Citizen Kane-like flashback as a writer (David Arquette) unravels his story

WHY HE’S GREAT X’s King David may be the most seductive, glamorous, chillingly evil villain of this genre since Wesley Snipes’ Nino Brown in 1991’s New Jack City. Even offscreen, he remains the film’s most charismatic presence, thanks in part to X’s distinctive voice on the audiotaped diary his character has left behind.

EW MOVIE GRADE B- (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS DMX plays a similar drug dealer in Belly and gangsters with a code of honor in Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, and Cradle 2 the Grave.

Mos Def

The Woodsman (2004)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Mos Def

REAL NAME Dante Terrell Smith

RAP PERSONA Thoughtful, poetic, political bohemian

SCREEN CHARACTER Sgt. Lucas, a parole officer who hounds Walter (Kevin Bacon), a parolee and convicted pedophile

WHY HE’S GREAT You’re rooting for Mos Def’s Lucas to be wrong in his assurance that the initial crime will be repeated, but with his quiet cynicism and insinuating manner, he gets under your skin while getting under Walter’s.

EW DVD GRADE B (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS The versatile actor plays an explosives expert in The Italian Job, a heart specialist in the made-for-HBO Something the Lord Made, and a fun-loving alien in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Image credit: Hustle & Flow: Alan Spearman


Hustle & Flow (2005)

The best rappers-turned-actors: Ludacris

REAL NAME Chris Bridges

RAP PERSONA Boastful, hard-partying joker

SCREEN CHARACTER Skinny Black, a successful rapper who’s become blinded by bling and surrounds himself with a posse of yes-men. Still, he returns each July 4th to his hometown of Memphis, where pimp-turned-aspiring-rapper Djay (Terrence Howard) hopes to slip him a demo tape.

WHY HE’S GREAT In a short amount of screen time, Luda quickly and easily telegraphs all you need to know about his character, who has all but cut himself off from his roots, who basks in flattery, and who turns out to be all too human and ordinary.

EW MOVIE GRADE A- (Read the review)

IF YOU LIKE THIS Ludacris also appears in 2 Fast 2 Furious as the dean of Miami’s underground street-racing scene and in 2005’s Crash as an unlikely carjacker.

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