After first appearing in a handful of projects by writer-director Jim Jarmusch like ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’, RZA (aka Robert Diggs) quickly demonstrated he had as much of an aptitude for acting as he did an affection for the art form as a whole. Admittedly, RZA is a little stiff on screen, but that’s oddly a virtue given many of the characters he plays, and in roles like Blind Master in ‘G.I. Joe Retaliation,’ he ends up being one of the best things about the movie, if only because he seems to best live up to the source material’s legacy as a series of poseable action figures.
It’s not just a good script that kept LL Cool J (né James Todd Smith) alive in the shark-themed thriller ‘Deep Blue Sea:’ with more than 10 years’ experience under his belt by the time the film came out in 1999, he virtually willed himself into being one of the film’s few survivors. After early appearances in ‘Toys’ and ‘The Hard Way,’ LL joined the cast of ‘In The House,’ where he convincingly played both comedy and drama, and then went on to stand out in films like ‘Any Given Sunday,’ ‘Last Holiday’ and ‘Deliver Us From Eva.’ That he’s not only returned to TV but flourished on ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ for almost five years now is a testament to his maturity and refinement as a performer.
Eve or Eve Jihan Jeffers is enough of an icon in the rap world that when she moved to the small screen, she basically launched her career on a show bearing her name. But performances in two ‘Barbershop’ films highlighted her natural presence and her appeal with audiences. But it’s in two key supporting roles, in ‘The Woodsman’ and ‘Whip It!,’ where she demonstrated she was a formidable partner for more established actors, going toe-to-toe with Kevin Bacon in the former and Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore in the latter.
Andre Benjamin has always been a restless artist, venturing into fashion, and of course acting, as ways of exploring his seemingly bottomless creativity. His early roles were mostly supporting turns, silly roles like those in ‘Hollywood Homicide’ and ‘Be Cool,’ but after John Singleton cast him in ‘Four Brothers,’ he developed a reputation for having a quiet sort of authority, and a vulnerability, which served his future projects well. Without having seen his turn as Jimi Hendrix in the upcoming ‘All Is By My Side,’ we can’t yet declare him a master thespian, but between ‘Idlewild’ and ‘Semi-Pro,’ both of which he really had to carry, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
Tracy Marrow aka Ice-T has been acting since almost before he was known as a rapper – small roles in ‘Breakin’ and its sequel actually put him on the map, professionally speaking. But in the early ‘90s, he got the opportunity to show more sides of himself, and in ‘New Jack City,’ he became an icon as Scotty Appleton, a cop so determined and fearless that he actually tells a perp at one point, “I want to shoot you so bad my d–k is hard.” Since then he’s spent a lot of time in supporting roles in unusual films – among them ‘Tank Girl’ and ‘Frankenpenis’ – but from 2000 to present, he’s played a detective on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,’ squaring off against the likes of Richard Belzer, and more than holding his own.
The two Chrises – “Kid” Reid and “Play” Martin of Kid ‘N’ Play – really only acted in a handful of movies, all of which were engineered to emphasize their respective personalities. But the original ‘House Party’ is a bona fide classic, not the least of which because the two of them are really terrific, showing a humanity and a sense of humor that not a lot of their contemporaries would be eager to explore.
Eminem hit the mother lode, acting-wise, when he was asked to basically play a thinly-veiled version of himself in 2002’s ’8 Mile,’ but perhaps unsurprisingly, he absolutely nailed the role, lending real substance to the story of an ambitious white factory worker from Detroit who overcomes his own insecurities – not to mention the socioeconomic forces that hold him and his friends down – to become a successful rapper. Since then, however, he’s mostly stayed away from fictional roles, opting instead to appear in documentaries, or playing “himself” in movies like ‘Funny People’ (where he’s very funny).
If O’Shea “Ice Cube“Jackson did no other films than ‘Boyz N Tha Hood,’ he would still find himself on this list, thanks to a remarkably sophisticated performance that harnessed the rage he unleashed in his music and contained it in an extraordinarily relatable and sympathetic young man. As a comedian, ‘Friday’ has become his calling card, employing that relatability yet again to show white America the lighter side of what it’s like to live in South Central Los Angeles. As he has matured he’s taken on the role of producer on some of the films in which he’s appeared, and ventured into genres where audience never would have expected him – such as kids movies like Are We There Yet. But with supporting turns alternately unique (‘Three Kings’), riveting (‘Rampart’) and hilarious (’21 Jump Street’) regularly becoming part of his repertoire, Cube doesn’t merely show audiences new sides of himself, he leads them in new directions.
Like Ice-T, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def and aka Dante Terrell Smith) has been acting almost since before anyone knew him as a rapper. But turns in films like ‘Monster’s Ball,’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘The Italian Job’ showed that he could take small roles, make them unique, and then make us remember them. He was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 2004 for his performance in ‘Something the Lord Made,’ and has since found a series of increasingly unusual and idiosyncratic opportunities with which to test his abilities, such as in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ ’16 Blocks’ and ‘Be Kind Rewind.’ If it tells you how far he’s come, his next role is as a young version of the character Samuel L. Jackson plays in ‘Jackie Brown’ – and we’ll bet he pulls it off.