Media Powerhouse Ice Cube Mans the Decks
by Tony Phillips
Are we there yet is a question Ice Cube could have asked of his career two times now. First in 1987, when he launched himself as one of the masterminds behind gansta rap outfit N.W.A. and then four years later, when he made his critically acclaimed debut in John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated ghetto opera Boyz N The Hood. This new year holds the January 28th release of his playa meets single mom rom-com road movie Are We There Yet? and April 29th brings the XXX sequel State of the Union. If he wanted to, this South Central native could put his feet up on his Cubevision production company desk and relax. He no longer has to ask are we there yet? He’s arrived.
But Cube has always been more about maxin’ than relaxin’. If this were not the case, he’d probably already have tired of tweaking Hollywood playbook Variety with rumors of an N.W.A. reunion gig at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and booked the big room already. In fact, he’d might have never left the collective a more rightwing Tipper Gore called “the most dangerous band in America” but he fleeced the scene, leveling a royalty robbing charge against N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller on his way out the door which lingered like a dark cloud obfuscating N.W.A.’s third release and cloaking a swan dive from critical grace to 1995’s final bottoming out with the AIDS death of founding member Easy-E.
“I feel like it’s time for me to do it like I feel it,” is how Cube answers the question of an eventual rematch with N.W.A. founding father Dr. Dre. “If I can do it like I feel it, I’ll do a record,” he continues, “if not, then I won’t. That‘s what I do it off now, more for the love I got than playing the rap game ‘cause the shit is played out.” It’s a home-brewed brand of absolutism one grocks very quickly up and down the halls of his Cubevision HQ. It runs with logic of computer code, but “the love” is at its headiest when he’s talking about Cubevision’s biggest assets: its peeps.
His three-times a leading lady Nia Long teamed with him for his Boyz debut, a Friday joint and his latest Are We There Yet? “She always comes ready to work,” Cube marvels, “she takes the role and makes it better than you ever expected it to be.” Likewise Marvin Gaye’s daughter Nona who demonstrates the same clear work ethic as Long — an ethic, quite frankly, one needs when clocking in as a Cubevision player — but while Nona plays opposite Cube in his second feature in the pipeline called State of the Union, it’s clear that unlike Long, she and Cube are not bodies in opposition, but going in for more of a slow burn that may have been smoldering since they first met more than ten years ago on the set of a Prince video Cube was directing. Even the Purple One isn’t spared Cube’s signature black and white parsing. “He’s just like everybody else,” Cube explains, “but he’s Prince.”
“It’s kind of testing my boundaries and testing my audience,” Cube explains of his latest film which marks his production companies largest budget to date, “but it’s still done in a way that I think adults — anybody — is going to be able to enjoy.” And that’s maybe not the first thing one has come to expect from either the gansta rapper steering N.W.A. through millions of units sold or the prestige player guided by Three Kings auteur David O. Russel to hold his own alongside Hollywood bank like Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney for his own cool five-million-a-picture price-tag. When Cube is left to his own devices, there are two things guaranteed. First, he did finally get straight outta Compton, but the 30-something lives in suburban Encino with his wife Kim and their four kids. Second, the movies that are making money for him at Cubevision are more a product of the Valley view than urban blight. Be they the tree smokin’ Friday franchise or the down home wisdom found in either of his Barbershops. Cube’s movies resemble nothing so much as the feel-good black comedies of the 1940s.
So it’s no surprise to hear the elevator pitch on his latest as “a kid’s movie in the vein of Home Alone.” Cube’s character Nick is sports car driving playa who hates kids, but can’t help loving “this just divorced chick with two kids, eight and eleven.” So he listens to his boys who explain that the surest way into Nia Long’s pocket is to “get in good with the kids and she gonna love you.” The whole things frankly sound like a job for that other absolutist, W.C. Fields, who held firm to his belief that one should never work with children or animals. In fact, one of his stock responses when asked how he liked children was, “they’re very good with mustard.” Not so Cube, who takes a more wait and see approach. “I don’t agree with W.C. when it comes to these two,” Cube explains of his two young co-stars, “I did Player’s Club and these kids was way more professional than some of the dudes I had on that movie. It might be true of the next batch I work with, but not of these kids. They was happy to be on the movie set. They was like, ‘Man, we ain’t at home or at school!’ They brought a lot to the table.”
And it seems like that table is the most important room in the house and Cube’s finally got a place at it. In fact, there’s so much room at this table he could put his feet up, if he did that kind of thing. If there’s one move his company executes consistently, it’s makin’ money, and that’s alright by him. Still, don’t hold your breath waiting for him to answer to mogul. Cube is more comfortable as a journeyman, but he can still remember that explosion in black film lit up by Spike Lee and knows he wouldn’t be possible without it. He jokes that this cuts both ways and there are some things for which Spike shouldn’t be thanked. When pressed for an example, he mentions his contemporary Antoine Fuqua probably wouldn’t be making King Arthur movies if Spike had not come before.
“I still have all that inside of me,” Cube recalls of his John Singleton Boyz debut, “I’m still doing the same music I’ve been doing since I was 13-years-old. That spirit is still in me so I look inward a lot. If I like it, then my peers and my peer’s kids would like it.” But before long the absolutism guiding his career since it began pipes up again. “You either got it or you don’t,” he says, “no matter what color you are. I can’t say there’s no struggle, but anybody in Hollywood, even Steven Spielberg, who thinks they’re not doing this Hollywood thing from project to project is fooling themselves, I don’t care how prestigious they are. I’ll never see it another way until someone gives me 200 million in the bank and says bring me back three movies.” Perhaps we’re not there yet, but this being Los Angeles, at least we’re in the car.