For obvious reasons, 50 Cent's new film Get Rich or Die Tryin' will be compared to Eminem's 8 Mile. Both are lightly fictionalized autobiographical accounts of an artist's rise from blight to bling; both have established actors and directors with respected pedigrees (Jim Sheridan and Curtis Hanson), and then there's the apprentice-mentor relationship between the two subjects. But in fact, both films can be tied to an older tradition. The autobiopic—people acting in their own life stories—dates back to at least the 1920s and includes many of the biggest pop-culture figures of the last century: Babe Ruth, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Jackie Robinson, Richard Petty, and Muhammad Ali, to name a few.
As a genre, the autobiopic has surprisingly stable conventions. By definition they are authorized accounts, so they tend to depict their subjects in idealized form—at their noblest, manliest, wisest, or most radical. (One notable exception is Richard Pryor's 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer, which is told as a kind of Christmas Carol flashback from a hospital bed where he is recovering from severe burns sustained while smoking crack.) Most of the subjects are not actors by trade, and even playing oneself turns out to be a challenge. Happily, charisma can make up for this deficiency. The moment in the film when the subjects stop acting andstart being themselves is usually obvious: the Dorsey brothers leading a band or Eminem freestyling. There's a priceless scene in The Greatest, Muhammad Ali's 1977 autobiopic, in which he impersonates an elderly woman calling to alert local papers of his arrival in town.
But the most notable and enduring convention of the autobiopic—and the most telling—is the way they frame the subject's life. As the voiceover that opens The Jackie Robinson Story explains: "This is the story of a boy and his dream. But more than that, it is the story of an American boy and a dream that is truly American." Autobiopics invariably read like Horatio Alger dime novels: rags-to-riches, feel-good stories in which the subjects overcome humble origins and social constraints to realize—through "luck, pluck, and decency"—the American dream of self-made success.
In the 1920 film Headin' Home, Babe Ruth portrays himself as a folk hero-cum-silent movie star: a cross between Paul Bunyan and Fatty Arbuckle who can "knock a cobblestone a mile with a darning needle." Less fanciful, but no less representative is The Fabulous Dorseys, released in 1947. Born to the coal mines, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey escape their father's fate only through tireless practice of their sax and trombone. Sure, they're typical American boys who would rather wrestle in the dirt than practice scales, but when opportunity knocks they're ready. While still in short pants, they play their first gig at the local dance hall (where they are tut-tutted by the town's matrons) and go on to become two of the biggest swing-band leaders in the country. It's an uncomplicated story of a rise to fame, sibling rivalry, and reconciliation—"a dream that is truly American." Crack addiction notwithstanding, Pryor's film also fits the mold. The child of a prostitute and a laborer, he is raised in a brothel. Even so, he is studious and kindhearted (shown offering to teach an illiterate bouncer to read), and he wears thrift-store suits and shines shoes to make ends meet until he gets his big break.
Despite their cookie-cutter plots, autobiopics often reflect their era. The Jackie Robinson Story, rushed out amid a blitz of Robinson-themed radio shows, comic books, and sheet music in 1950, is more a celebration of white broad-mindedness and beneficence than Robinson's own bravery. Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey (played by an actor named Minor Watson) grandstands and moralizes, reminding Robinson that "it might take more courage for the organization than for you" to break the color line in baseball. (The script was co-written by Rickey's assistant Arthur Mann.)
Robinson, for his part, is depicted as humble, hard-working, and grateful for the opportunities he's given. He serves in the Army willingly (with no mention of his efforts to combat Jim Crow while there), and weathers abuse stoically (with no hint of his later outspokenness about umpire's calls or segregated hotels). In the film's final scene, its conservative coup de grace, he is shown testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he was called in 1949 to rebuff Paul Robeson's claim that African Americans wouldn't support their country in a war against the Soviet Union.
A quarter-century later, Muhammad Ali's The Greatest tells a very different story. Just as Mann had crafted Robinson's story to glorify Rickey, Ali's was written to justify the views of the Nation of Islam. In his native Louisville, the Olympic champ is still a "nigger," made to wash cars for whites and eat outside with their dogs, which he is warned not to touch lest "you get your odor on them." Through hard work and self-discipline, he defeats not only Liston and Foreman, but the tougher contenders Racism and Religious Intolerance as well.
Eminem's 8 Mile, with its motivational anthem and upward-mobility-via-rap plot, might be the apotheosis of the form. Like Robinson, Eminem's B-Rabbit must cross a color line, but his rise is equally a story of hard work and thrift. While everyone around him plays bingo and bets on pipe dreams, Rabbit swallows his pride and takes a job alongside "ex-cons and welfare moms" at a Detroit stamping plant. When he wants to save money to record a demo, he works extra shifts.
At first glance, Get Rich or Die Tryin' would seem to aspire to the same tradition. 50 Cent plays Marcus, a streetwise kid who is orphaned when his drug-dealing mother is murdered by an associate. Before long, he takes up the family business himself. There's an effort—subtle in the movie, more explicit in 50 Cent's recent autobiography, From Pieces to Weight—to characterize hustling as just another means of achieving the American dream. "He's out there in the entrepreneurial spirit, hustling, trying to get rich," 50 Cent writes of drug dealers in his book, "... just like that guy punching the clock, the old man driving the cab, the kid going to college to get his degree, the girl waiting tables at the restaurant."
And Marcus does work hard at his trade, rising quickly through the ranks. He's even referred to at one point jokingly as "the Employee of the Month" by his superiors. But unlike his autobiopic forebears, he disdains honest work and disparages those willing to do it. "At least my momma didn't wash floors on her knees like you," he says to his loving grandfather. "I ain't no second-class nigga." Neither is self-improvement Marcus' primary motivation. He begins hustling when he sees a pair of Air Jordans that he can't afford in a shop window. He thus turns to drug dealing not to get out of the ghetto, but to look good in it.
The difference between the messages of the two films is best expressed in their respective anthems. Eminem's "Lose Yourself" is written from the perspective of the underdog: "If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip?" he asks. 50 Cent begins by telling his listeners with a chuckle, "The top is so much better than the bottom." He then proceeds to tease them: "You a window shopper/ at the jewelry store looking at shit you can't buy." Eminem's song is a challenge, inspiring listeners to do as he's done. 50 Cent's is a taunt, telling listeners they can't have what he's got. So much for luck and pluck and decency.