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The Boston Phoenix The Color Of Money

Blacks are back at the box office, but are they still getting the shaft?

By Peter Keough

JULY 31, 2000:  Black cinema has come a long way, for better or worse, since Beloved. Two years after the earnest, expensive adaptation of the Toni Morrison bestseller tanked at the box office, got drubbed by the critics, and came up empty at Oscar time, three films from black filmmakers or featuring black stars -- Raja Gosnell's broad comedy Big Momma's House, with Martin Lawrence; John Singleton's remake of the 1971 classic Shaft, with Samuel L. Jackson; and Keenen Ivory Wayans's spoof of the contemporary horror-film genre, Scary Movie -- have taken charge at the box office. As of last weekend, they were closing in on a combined $300 million. Scary Movie alone rejuvenated the floundering summer grosses with its truly frightening opening weekend take of $42.3 million -- the biggest box-office showing of any film directed and produced by African-Americans. To top it off, Beloved herself, actress Thandie Newton, found herself second-billed to Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2, the biggest moneymaker of the year.

Good news for the viability of African-American filmmakers, and perhaps an indication that the unresolved state of race relations in America, which has been ignored utterly by both parties so far in the presidential campaign, might be finding a forum on the nation's movie screens. Or is it? How black are these films after all, and to what extent are they a resigned concession to the conventions, stereotypes, and exploitiveness of a dominant, sensation-seeking white culture? Spike Lee recently complained that the jingoistic Revolutionary War movie The Patriot had written out all references to slavery. The irony is, this summer's successful black filmmakers seem to be practicing the same kind of whitewashing.

Compared with such racially neutral but politically charged entertainments as X-Men, for example, the trio of Shaft, Scary Movie, and Big Momma's House look pretty pallid. The foul-mouthed prodigy sons in Me, Myself & Irene (soon to star in their own spinoff sequel) have more satirical bite than all three films combined. Certainly none of these movies will endure alongside such breakthrough pictures as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), which ushered in the seeming but short-lived renaissance in black filmmaking that included Singleton's debut, Boyz N the Hood (1991), for which he received Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscar nominations. Neither will they have the impact of Gordon Parks's original Shaft, the first in the equally short-lived resurgence of black-oriented filmmaking in the early '70s, the dismissively monikered blaxploitation movies.

Even by the diminished standards of summer entertainment, this trio lack distinction. Not that the genres -- comedy and action -- are necessarily lightweight. Comedy has always been the sly tool used by the underdog to strike back at the oppressor, express anger, and illuminate the truth. Martin Lawrence, however, is no Richard Pryor; he can't even fill Flip Wilson's pumps. A dark-skinned spin on Mrs. Doubtfire, a pallid precursor to Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, this cross-dressing farce about an FBI agent who goes undercover as a big-bosomed matriarch could as easily have been all white but for the basketball, the gospel singers, and the extra helpings of Crisco. Worse, it reduces black manhood to that most emasculating stereotype, the Mammy.

Keenen Ivory Wayans is another story. The creator of the groundbreaking TV series In Living Color started out with the shoestring-budgeted blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), a surprise hit that genially punctured some of Hollywood's more invidious stereotypes. Subsequent black-themed parodies like A Low Down Dirty Shame (1994) and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) met with less success. Maybe the problem was the unwieldy titles -- Scary Movie originally was called Scream If I Know What You Did Last Summer. Most likely, though, the sticking point was that those earlier films were too dark -- in complexion as well as tone. As Wayans's agent, Eric Gold, said in the July 21 Entertainment Weekly, "The colorless one was the one that fit into pop culture. There's nothing ethnic in the [Scream] genre, so there was no reason to take it in that direction."

No reason especially if that direction takes it away from $150 million at the box office. To its credit, Scary Movie does have its squirmy racial moments. A black woman at a screening of Shakespeare in Love (both films are Miramax releases, as is the Scream franchise) talks back to the screen and to her cringing, lily-white fellow viewers; what follows is her brutal mob murder. It's a funny but uncomfortable lampoon of what may be the greatest obstacle to crossover movies: white fear of overdemonstrative black audiences. Intercut with this sequence is the film's most bizarre scene, where Keenen's brother Shawn gets fucked in the head by a big white dick -- a metaphor open to interpretation.

But if the Wayans brothers' political integrity takes it in the ear in Scary Movie, how about the street cred of John Singleton's remake of the hard-ass Shaft? Parks's original was a savvy combination of workmanlike action adventure and shrewd analysis of the inner-city power structure circa 1970, anchored by the earthy cool of Richard Roundtree in the title role of Manhattan private detective John Shaft and propelled by the timeless sass of the Isaac Hayes theme song and soundtrack. In the gumshoe tradition, Shaft is a liaison between respectable society and the underground, the latter in this case consisting of a black mobster, a Black Panther-like organization, and the Mafia. In a play to take over Harlem, the Mafia kidnaps the mobster's daughter; hired to rescue her, Shaft orchestrates a union of black outlaws and revolutionaries. Although the white guys gunned down aren't cops, the anti-establishment agenda isn't hard to decipher.

And what of the remake three decades later? The music is back, and so is Roundtree in a grizzled cameo. The production values and the clothes are a lot slicker, and Samuel L. Jackson is, if anything, even cooler than his predecessor. But the story and politics are a total mishmash. Singleton has transformed the hardboiled detective story into a revenge thriller, with a Dirty Harry-like Jackson quitting the police force to seek vigilante justice when rich-kid race murderer Christian Bale (resuming his persona in American Psycho) uses his clout to skip town before his trial. A Latino gang under Geoffrey Wright (whose performance is hilarious even though his accent renders half his dialogue incomprehensible) offers a bit of sociological intrigue, but otherwise this Shaft has none of the resonance of its forebear. The violence and injustice it exploits is merely gratuitous and superficial, and it in no way resembles the canny systemic critique authored by Parks.

Maybe the biggest difference between the two Shafts is that the latter is wilted. Not much is seen of the "sex machine" of the song lyrics other than some anonymous undulation under the opening credits. Perhaps it was in the spirit of the times, but the 1971 Shaft got in some sexy R&R between his tough stints on the street, including one shower scene with a white woman that would open eyes today. We've come a long way in three decades in the matter of interracial romance -- backwards.

What about Mission: Impossible II? True, Thandie Newton holds her own with Tom Cruise for the film's first half-hour, teaching him a few new tricks as a lithe, high-tech cat thief and then scalding the screen in an outrageous mating dance involving expensive automobiles and a hairpin cliffside game of chicken reminiscent of To Catch a Thief. It appears she's going to be Cruise's most erotic co-star since he danced with himself in Risky Business, but unfortunately this impossible mission ends with her being pimped out to the bad guy and spending the rest of the movie a prisoner or in a semi-coma. So much for a sexually liberated and politically empowered black heroine.

The cause of and cure for racism is, to a degree, as much sexual as economic. To quote Warren Beatty as the hip-hopping title senator in his sometimes on-target, often self-righteous, now-more-timely-than-ever 1998 satire Bulworth, "Everybody's got to keep fucking everybody else until there's only one color. But it will take a long time." Indeed. If and when that happens, scenes like the one opening Black and White, where a pair of apparently underage white schoolgirls get it on with each other and with a black stud in Central Park, will no longer shock people.

Flawed though it may be, this pastiche from perennial loose cannon and aspiring White Negro James Toback (its melodramatic noir plot is what does it in, not its pretentiousness or labored hipness) does what film should do: it re-creates fantasies of the audience's deepest dreads and desires. No doubt the sexual aura and artistic fecundity of black culture is a source of profound white anxiety, but these qualities are also irresistibly attractive, an injection of vitality for jejune white consumers, as is demonstrated by such wanna-be "niggas" as Beatty's Bulworth and Toback's spoiled trust-fund kids writhing to the rhythms of outlaw rappers.

And perhaps the ruthlessness and misogyny of the rap artist is just a sublimation of that archetypal black macho figure, the pimp. Allen and Albert Hughes, the twin brothers whose debut, Menace II Society (1993), was one of the last gasps of the black-cinema rebirth of a decade ago, take on this daunting subject in American Pimp. The film's portrait of a number of colorful members of the world's second-oldest profession lingers on the obvious but does make some telling jabs at pimps as the epitome of a society based on exploitation. As the heavyhanded shots of DC landmarks make clear, the racist's nightmare of white women enslaved to black brutes that goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is merely the end result of a system of pandering and prostitution.

Needless to say, we won't be hearing about American Pimp come Oscar time -- though Spike Lee's new The Real Kings of Comedy (due out August 14), a concert film of the popular black comics D.L. Highley, Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer (a showstopper in Big Momma's House), might make a showing, if only to preclude Lee's annual tirade about the Academy's exclusion of blacks. White audiences are most comfortable when black people are clowns on a stage or, to judge from last year's Oscar contenders The Green Mile and The Hurricane, sainted fools or dogged crusaders safely behind bars.

That seems to be the pattern for black cinema: after a summer of shtick, the fall releases clean up their act to become Oscar-worthy, often by turning to white directors. This year's candidate for sainted black fool is The Legend of Bagger Vance (opens November 3), Robert Redford's adaptation of the Steve Pressfield novel in which golf pro Matt Damon learns the ultimate golf swing and the secret of life from beatific caddy Will Smith. (Why can't the white boy carry the clubs? Haven't these people heard of Tiger Woods?) The dogged-crusader candidate is Denzel Washington as the black football coach in a newly integrated Virginia high school in Boaz Yakin's Remember the Titans (opens September 29). These films might get a couple of nominations, maybe a token win or two, and then, after the usual feeble complaints about Oscar's disgraceful record on race, it'll be back to business next summer with the usual spate of moneymaking black comedies and thrillers. In the end, the only color that matters in Hollywood is the color of money.


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