There’s a mural of Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the side of a liquor store on Franklin and Putnam Avenues in Brooklyn. It depicts Ol’ Dirty’s face on a welfare card, as used on the cover of his 1995 album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Meddlesome kids sometimes draw graffiti Dirty’s face, say, by adding a mustache to his top lip. After I took this picture last summer, I asked the middle-aged man who works in the liquor store about the graffiti. He shook his head. “You shouldn’t deface the ODB,” he told me.
Witnessing Dirty’s disheveled face at large and on the side of a liquor store is poignant, and it’s the most fitting way to uphold the deceased rapper’s legacy. You could even wonder why anyone would attempt to memorialize him any other way. You’d also be suspicious that an upcoming movie on his life — titled Dirty White Boy — is more likely to sully than salute the ODB. This is despite news that other members of the Wu-Tang Clan might appear in the movie.
Dirty White Boy is the brainchild of Jarred Weisfeld. As an intern at VH1, he somehow pitched a reality TV show focussed on Ol’ Dirty’s post-parole life, and then finagled that situation into becoming a sort of manager to the rapper during his final days. (It’s an opportunistic rise that saw the Village Voice characterize Weisfeld as the “scum-sucking final ODB manager.”) This set-up doesn’t inspire much confidence that the movie will portray ODB respectfully.
But Dirty White Boy has received a couple of positive publicity bumps of late. This week it was leaked that RZA, Raekwon, Method Man and Ghostface are considering taking on roles as themselves in the movie. Before that, it was announced that Michael K. Williams, the actor best known for his turn as the moralistic shotgun-bandying stick-up kid Omar Little in The Wire, had signed on to play ODB. Presumably, the collective thinking decided that anyone who’d prospered in a show cloaked in the tropes of hip-hop, like The Wire was, would be a dab hand at portraying a rapper. (Although if a stunt double is ever needed, Meechy Darko from the Flatbush Zombies should be a shoe-in due to his spooky physical likeness to ODB, metal fangs and all.) Still, the quality of acting will do little to save Dirty White Boy if it can’t overcome the achilles heel of modern rap biopics: The mythologization of rappers.
More than any other genre, hip hop’s biggest and most successful figures mythologize themselves for artistic and financial gain. This is nothing new; the MC as some sort of verbally gifted superhero or exaggerated lothario harks back to the music’s inception in the ’70s. It makes for some thrilling music, especially when rappers amplify the extent of their nefarious (and often narcotic-related) past. There’s Jay-Z and his years providing his beloved Marcy projects community with their vital supply of crack; there’s 50 Cent posting up on the corner of Guy R. Brewer Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens; there’s T.I. and his tales about his dope boy days down in the ATL. Ol’ Dirty’s own crew, the Wu-Tang Clan, have long been subject to rumors about the extent of their criminal backgrounds. (An F.B.I. file exists on Dirty, but it also explores allegations about the group’s broader relationships with known gang organizations.) We let rappers indulge in this semi-fantasy because it creates some exhilarating and vivid rap songs — at their best, artists like Jay-Z can condense an entire movie’s plot about high-end drug dealing into a three-minute blast of rap music.
But transforming the persona of a rapper into a biopic creates a conundrum. Rappers are naturally reluctant to confess to the real details and extent of their criminal experience. It’s a double whammy: There’s the obvious fear of self-incrimination and the threat of revenge (it’s rumored 50 Cent was shot nine times for revealing a few too many details about the shenanigans of Queens ’80s crack kingpins the Supreme Team in the song “Ghetto Qu’ran”). And no rapper wants to burst their own bubble of invulnerability. So without any new revelations — and hip hop’s far from honorable adoption of the ’stop snitchin’ mantra probably scuppers this one — it’s meant that previous biopics on Biggie (Notorious) and 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin’) have played out as hollow shells of a story, content to simply re-sketch biographies everyone already knows. It’s toeing the PR party line, which never makes for a revealing or insightful profile.
Telling the audience something new and nuanced about an artist is vital for a biopic to satisfy anyone but the fanboys. Even when dealing with rappers who haven’t made careers in part based on drug-trade rhymes, it’s an issue: Michael Rapaport’s A Tribe Called Quest documentary was an odd hash of a not very interesting story to begin with (some rappers make music, after a while they kinda fall out while they plummet from critical grace) and attempts to drum up some drama by playing up the internal squabbles between Q-Tip and Phife. But without stooping to muck-raking, the inter-band tensions had already been summed up in record on Q-Tip’s “Do It, See It, Be It.” Sometimes a hip-hop artist’s story is better as a rapped fable than a serious, fleshed out biopic. (The exception might be Eminem’s 8 Mile, which succeeded as a Rocky for rap kids by looking to the intensity of the rap battle scene for its theatrical kicks.)
These are all problems Dirty White Boy has to confront. Sure, Ol’ Dirty put more of himself and his TMZ-worthy stunts out there than most rappers, but his most infamous ruses are already well known: His welfare check-cashing prank, his antics bum-rushing the stage at the Grammys, his numerous legal and drug problems. Without introducing new depth to his personality, or bringing to the fore fresh facts about his life, the film will unravel like a bunch of seen-it-before YouTube clips. And despite some of the Clan reportedly being ready to step up and play themselves in the movie, the role of Weisfeld and the idea that the movie will be phrased in terms of his relationship with ODB suggests it’s likely to take a sensationalist approach to Dirty’s demise. Tellingly, a spokesperson for the GZA has already distanced the rapper from the movie, saying “100% [GZA] is not appearing in the ODB/Jarred Weisfeld movie.”
Dirty White Boy has yet to receive a release date, other than a vague “2013.” But when it does hit cinema screens, you might find a more respectful way to honor the great ODB’s memory is to aim your eyes at a painted mural on a Brooklyn block corner instead.