Cube Squared

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O'Shea Jackson, AKA Ice Cube

Here comes another one of Dad's lectures, the kids must think as their father drives them to their public school in California's San Fernando Valley. "I know you get tired of hearing it, because I get tired of saying it," the old man says. "If you do what you're supposed to do, you'll have all the time in the world to do what you want to do." He shrugs his shoulders. "Of course I can see the look on their faces," he tells a reporter. "They'd rather hear the radio station than hear me go on with my life lessons. Still, you gotta teach kids, because they only know what you teach them."

The paragon of paternal concern, Mr. O'Shea Jackson, is better known to the world as Ice Cube. As a teenager, he came straight outta South Central Los Angeles as a member of N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), the most notorious rap group from the toughest ghetto in L.A. In their hit F___ tha Police, he grabbed the mike and fulminated, "Ice Cube will swarm/On any motherf_____ in a blue uniform." That sentiment earned him a stern letter from the FBI.

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Now, at 33, he's a classic Southern California hyphenate: suburban dad — movie mogul. And while Cube is the most grounded of citizens, he still does things his own way in the movie business.

In Hollywood a top producer is somebody who spends a lot to earn even more. The result is blockbuster — or bankruptcy. Ice Cube has chosen a different route as star, producer and often writer. "We've taken the path of least resistance in Hollywood: comedies," he says of his production company, Cube Vision. "Where black movies are concerned, it's easier to get people to put up money to laugh than to cry." The recipe: make rowdy ensemble films with fine black actors. Lavish time and care; be stingy with nothing but money. Hope the core audience will expand to folks of any color looking for a fun show.

It works. The combined budgets for four Ice Cube — produced movies — Friday (1995), its sequel Next Friday (2000) and this year's All About the Benjamins and Barbershop (which Cube Vision co-produced) — were about $40 million. The combined take in North America was $185 million. Barbershop, a PG-13 celebration of community, has earned nearly $75 million on a $12 million investment. This week Cube launches the third in his R-rated Friday series, Friday After Next. And you can bet that it will end up where the others did: in the black.

Feel-good black comedies flourished in the '40s (with music stars like Louis Jordan), the '70s (with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby) and the early '90s, when the House Party series added comic rap. But no one has filled the niche like Cube. "He owns that corner of the market now," says Michael De Luca, the DreamWorks executive who signed on to Friday when he was at New Line.

The new Friday is more of the rambunctious same. It's Christmas Eve in the ghetto, which, the narrator tells us, is "the only place you can get robbed by Santa Claus." Cousins Craig (Cube) and Day-Day (Mike Epps), the victims of a burglary, have one day to raise the stolen rent money, so they take jobs as security guards in the local strip mall. This Elvz N the Hood is standard, vigorous fare with a terrific supporting performance by Katt Williams as a pint-size pimp.

As for Cube, he doesn't act in the movie so much as preside over it like the producer he is: the deadpan guy with authority — glower power — whom everyone else has to please. Cube is a hands-on auteur. "I oversee every aspect of filmmaking," he notes. "I put my two cents into decisions on the artwork, the actors, the wardrobe, the locations."

It's a long way from South Central to Hollywood; the 10 miles might as well be 10 light-years. But even as a kid, making banners and signs for his beloved Lakers with heavy paper and colored ink, "I loved creating something from scratch," Cube recalls. On tour with N.W.A., he used a video camera to make movies featuring the group. "You could see the the talent was there," says former band mate Dr. Dre.

Cube left the band in 1990 in a financial dispute. "The music business toughens your business sense," Cube says. "Hollywood is a piece of cake compared to the record business." He made his acting debut in 1991's Boyz N the Hood, a gritty look at South Central. When he started producing his own pictures, his view was decidedly more benign. "A lot of films portrayed the neighborhood as lowdown," says Cube. "But we felt like this was our neighborhood, and you gotta live through certain things by laughing at what you can and crying about what you have to."

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