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Chill on the Set !

Now an established actor, rap star Ice Cube is becoming something of a movie mogul as he makes his directing debut with 'The Player's Club.'

May 21, 1997|EMORY HOLMES II | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First-time director Ice Cube moves along a perimeter of scaffolding and cables and enters a plywood corridor that leads to the set of his New Line film, "The Player's Club." The film, of which he is also screenwriter, co-producer and star, is a comedy-drama set in a black strip joint in the South, a region where trendy strip clubs are currently the rage.

Cube's evolution from a teenage star of the influential, prescient and inflammatory gangsta rap quintet N.W.A. into the driven, high-minded and very charming businessman and budding film mogul is one of the great career stories in American pop. Cube, now 28, is dressed in a Baltimore Orioles cap, baggy black T-shirt and jeans, and bargain-store tennies.

He has pulled his cap down low, but not enough to obscure the profile of his alter ego, Reggie, the manipulative petty gangster he plays in the film. Reggie's look calls for a '50s-style vandyke beard and broadly sloping sideburns, which Cube has embellished with his trademark left ear diamond stud and brooding demeanor.

He steps through curtains of theatrical smoke, hot-pink from the glow of the set, and enters the strip joint. The room is as red as a cherry. Over the entranceway hangs the club's logo: a silhouette of a buxom and leggy female leaning forward slightly and clutching a handful of greenbacks.

From the colored lights flashing beneath the runway of the raised Plexiglas stage to the disco music booming above the beehive of technicians and extras, the scene is perfectly lurid. The club's male patrons are dressed in designer chic or polyester kitsch, all topped with a sprinkling of Afros, shaved heads and old-fashioned conks. Waitresses are human logos, athletic and leggy and dressed in black hot pants and halter tops.

Cube takes a seat at the edge of the stage and joins a discussion about the blocking of a scene. His story is told from the perspective of a young stripper named Diamond (newcomer Lisa Raye).

"Strippers are a different breed," Cube says. "They develop a force field around themselves because they have to make their money in the pits of hell. Some of them let the money take them over, but others try to do it with some kind of integrity. The motto of my film is, 'Make the money, don't let the money make you.' "

Cube and Pat Charbonnet, his partner at Ghetto Bird Productions and the film's co-producer, have assembled a creative team evenly mixed with first-timers and seasoned pros. Assistant director Don Wilkerson has worked with several first-time directors, most recently with Martin Lawrence ("Thin Line Between Love and Hate"). Director of photography Malik Sayeed worked on "Get on the Bus," "Clockers" and "Girl 6."

Like most low-budget productions, the pressure to get the shot expertly, cheaply and quickly (the film is scheduled for a November release) has the crew looking on-edge and driven. Cube studies a scene in silence, then goes right to the heart of the trouble.

"You got to know where the camera is, Chrystale baby," he tells Chrystale Wilson, who will make her feature debut as Ronnie, the film's voluptuous villain.

Wilson says she thought twice before taking this film. "This is my first time in Hollywood and I was nervous. I kept thinking that here is this hard-core rapper and even though I've always admired him I've never thought about what it would be like to work with him. I was wondering, 'Is he going to have his friends up on the set disrespecting us? Is he going to talk to us any old kind of way?' But when I met him, he was so respectful. And he said to me, 'If anyone gives you any problems, you let me know and it will be taken care of. You are not here to be mistreated.' "

*

"The Player's Club" boasts a strong African American presence on both sides of the camera, including producers Carl Craig ("Hollywood Shuffle") and Dwight Williams ("Friday"), stunt coordinator William Washington ("The Rock") and Oscar-winning sound man Russell Williams ("Dances With Wolves"). Cube and Charbonnet have created that rarest of Hollywood phenomena--an African American film with a professional crew that is overwhelmingly black, in this case about 80%. "The Player's Club" stars Jamie Foxx ("Booty Call") as the club's underpaid deejay, Blue, and Bernie Mac ("Friday") as the club's no-account owner, Dollar Bill. Monica Calhoun ("The Baghdad Cafe") co-stars as the money-obsessed Ebony.

Lisa Raye, who plays the film's heroine, was discovered by Charbonnet when she appeared as an extra in "Toss It Up," a music video by the slain gang rapper Tupac Shakur. At first, Raye also had reservations when she heard Cube was writing and directing a film about women but says the script reassured her.

"He writes about things that women actually go through," Raye says. "Although there are tons of men characters in this film, he writes the women's viewpoints very sensitively." Calhoun says that as a director, Cube gives his actors "just enough so that you can sprout your wings."

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