Scary Movie is Funny; Shaft is Scary

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

directed by John Singleton

by Keenen Ivory Wayans

Jackson has advanced to
near-raceless status. No longer simply an "Other," it’s he, not
Mel Gibson, who is "the patriot." Swaggering in Armani through a big-screen
urban abattoir, Jackson’s Shaft exemplifies the most lunatic contemporary
American virtues: arrogant, boastful and abusive; with no respect, no gratitude,
no piety, no natural affection. Implacable in his hatreds, scandalous, intemperate
and fierce, opposed to all goodness, swollen with self-importance. This is no
role model. The heathen that Jackson represents has been subsumed into American
habit; he portrays the anger Americans are comfortable with, therefore part
of everyday, take-it-for-granted substance. It’s Shaft’s common cruelty,
unlike the heroes of M:I2, Gladiator or The Patriot, that
critics have unanimously praised. (They don’t require that he exhibit Gibson’s
loving fatherly purpose.) And you can tell from reviewers’ seeming indifference
to Shaft’s ethnicity (initially the confrontational element in Gordon Parks’
original film) that this pop figure poses no challenge or threat but fits perfectly
into the banal culture’s status quo: Jackson is blackness.

At first I wasn’t going
to comment on Shaft, but after the heaping critical praise (huzzas, dammit!)
it must be said somewhere that only a moral idiot would think Shaft
is simply a feel-good entertainment. This movie makes Americans feel good about
their unrecognized racism, the country’s ineradicable disease. It’s
the real scary movie.

Much of the confusion comes
from the detective thriller-cop movie-action flick antecedents that the mass
audience favors, delusions that Keenen Ivory Wayans should have targeted in
Scary Movie. These unexamined genres are a trap; they won’t benefit
nonskeptical black directors, even though John Singleton (like Wayans) leans
on genre to prolong his career. Shaft connects Singleton to the formulaic
movies that one had come to admire Boyz N the Hood for not being.
Loud, violent and impersonally directed, Shaft shows Singleton acquiring
the type of Hollywood skills that will always diminish his point of view. Why
make a film this heartless and brutal except to further exactly the kind of
Hollywood dehumanization that Singleton previously sought to renounce? Black
characters in Shaft are victims of white racism and insensitivity, but
their responses are equally hostile and thoughtless. That’s no advance;
in fact, it’s the same kind of regression that ruined Singleton’s
historical epic Rosewood. He foolishly sought to soothe historical tragedy
with the cartoon emollient of genre.

Although Singleton is 10
years older than when making Boyz N the Hood, he still has an adolescent’s
urge for trite revenge. John Shaft isn’t simply a smart, strong black man,
he dresses like a pimp and struts like a gangster, but is a cop! (Shaft eventually
discards his badge like proto-vigilante Dirty Harry, using a ninja’s pitch.)
Quick fists and a lethal automatic pistol are Shaft’s rejoinders to all
comers; in the end, he’s a hollow action figure. Suppose the original Shaft,
Richard Roundtree (who has gained gravity and skill he didn’t have back
in 1971, but here is relegated to a smiling old-codger cameo), had reprised
Shaft and brought with him some reflection on the past 30 years of racism, police
brutality, ghetto nihilism? Paul Newman captured such depth in reprised roles
of The Drowning Pool and Twilight. But Hollywood doesn’t
allow black artists to create such continuity and exploration. Jackson takes
over the Shaft franchise simply to deracinate and dilute it.

Despite giving Jackson a
role he can cruise through–his stare from inside a limousine seems effortlessly
threatening–Singleton still can’t make Jackson’s screen presence
humane. This Shaft, the cop nephew of the private detective played by Roundtree
in the 1970s series, is a conceptual failure that prevents Singleton from adding
depth to a black pop-culture landmark. The only thing missing from Jackson’s
image is an accusation of his guilt. Check the poster: Jackson’s glowering
pose recalls O.J. darkened on the cover of Time magazine. His demonic
visage only confirms to me the reason (white) media loves Sam Jackson; he epitomizes
the savage, evil black man.

Jackson’s scowling
smile, eyes peering from a heart of darkness (and lit from below as if by the
fires of hell), screams out the kind of racially prejudiced ideas that most
Americans accept without thinking about (like those who praise The Patriot
without scrutinizing its politics). There has never been a black movie star
with Jackson’s decadent allure. Poitier was decent, Pryor was amusing,
Murphy was funny, Prince was androgynous, Morgan Freeman was dignified, Denzel
was handsome, Danny Glover was noble. But Jackson is mean–and in an almost
primordial way, evoking the roots of race fear and guilt. And yet, Jackson has
never played an avenging black (a Jimmy Blacksmith or Nat Turner–or even
the vampire Eddie Murphy dared portray). Instead, Jackson simply fulfills whites’
worst suspicions of black men and carries out the bullyboy imperative of big
city cops ("It’s Giuliani time!" he cheers in Shaft) and
initiates the U.S. government’s implicit Third World genocide against Arabs
("Waste the motherfuckers!" he screams in Rules of Engagement).

It’s alarming to see
these hidden prejudices applauded via Shaft’s crude, brutal genre
exercise. Strange, too, that Singleton and conservative commentator Georgette
Mosbacher both praised the Shaft character on Politically Incorrect.
Misguided Singleton termed the mean black character empowering while Mosbacher
dug Shaft’s vigilante aspects. Where is the media scrutiny of this character
that was given to Denzel/Jewison’s Hurricane Carter? Critics accept that
Shaft’s most memorable moment is when Jackson beats to a pulp a black man
(Bonz Malone) half his size. The only complaints have been from Latinos who
cheer Shaft’s viciousness yet resent the drug-dealer Peoples Hernandez
(Jeffrey Wright wasting his cagey talent). Once again, we have proof how destructive
and dangerous popular culture can be. The media’s celebration of Shaft
(not Big Momma’s House, which actually made more money) is the correlative
to its denigration of Oprah in Beloved and the dismissal of Djimon Hounsou
in Amistad. Evil Sam, the most celebrated black actor of the day, is
the black image mainstream media prefers. In terms of creating a character who
is virulent toward communities of color and ineffectual against the system that
oppresses contemporary freedoms, Singleton and Jackson have achieved the serial
killer nightmare Spike Lee could not. That Satanic Shaft is Son of Sam, indeed.

Funny without ever being
clever, Scary Movie (set at B.A. Ghoul High School and parodying already
risible hits like Scream, The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix
and I Know What You Did Last Summer) shows director Keenen Ivory
Wayans successfully maneuvering the Hollywood system. Gross-out humor has become
this era’s screwball genre, and Wayans follows the fashion. Along with
his cowriting, costarring brothers, scarecrow Marlon and mannequin Shawn, he
out-outrages the Farrelly brothers and the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team (of Airplane!)
primarily by staging unrestrained sex jokes. The Wayans also challenge the Weitz
brothers who did last year’s ribald American Pie. Devoted to the
mirth of dirty jokes and dumbness, this, clearly, is a genre rooted in naughty
adolescent sport–cinematic circle jerks.

But Scary Movie is
also Keenen’s white movie. The lead players are Dawson’s Creek-white:
Main screamer Anna Faris unnervingly resembles Katie Holmes; Carmen Electra
sets the film in slow-jiggle motion (a striptease chase that lacks teasing finesse);
even James Van Der Beek makes an appearance. Yet the Wayans brothers themselves
are cast, sans irony, in traditional black sidekick/cannon-fodder parts. Addressing
the mainstream audience more cannily than either Forest Whitaker’s Hope
or Carl Franklin’s One True Thing, Wayans renounces what
previously seemed his cultural purpose. Instead of spoofing Hollywood blacks’
desperate careerist urges–catching the trenchant social moment like Robert
Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle–Wayans here ignores black cultural
expression. It, obviously, was limiting him to the Hollywood small-time. Scary
’s jokes aren’t more universal than in his previous parody
films or In Living Color tv series; they’re just deliberately dumber,
asserting less meaning than when Wayans knowingly uncovered white America’s
fascination with black comics–thus, the country’s subjective regard
of race. (A memorably rude ILC skit such as the malapropisms of an Afrocentric
ex-con was more revealing than Chris Rock’s Nat X routine.) Wayans was
once part of hiphop’s cultural advance.

Scary Movie only
achieves such interpenetrating humor–sending up a white stereotype and
releasing black tension–when it focuses on a black character, Regina Hall
as Brenda, meeting her fate. At a showing of Shakespeare in Love, Brenda’s
loud-talking, fried-chicken-eating annoyance turns into a murderous free-for-all.
This scene ("Brad Pitt’s girlfriend is a freak!" Brenda responds
to Gwyneth’s gender-reversal performance) loses its pomo brilliance in
a proud, blatant disregard of sophistication. Brenda’s ghetto bluster bothers
everybody–a bodacious, long-overdue dis. But Wayans seems incapable of
taking such parody to the next level; he leaves audiences with the virulence
of their prejudices along with their pathetic dependence upon genre conventions.
The one instance in which Wayans comes close to presenting a recognizable character
exposes how far he is from sustaining characterization or storyline.

To Wayans’ shame, the
most amazing cultural humor onscreen this year occurs elsewhere–in Me,
Myself & Irene
. First with the dwarf MENSA member (Tony Cox) who cuckolds
Jim Carrey and then with the three black infants Carrey is left to "father."
The Farrelly brothers kid racial stereotypes by flipping them. Their satirical
plot reveals contemporary processes of cultural influence and expectation: Despite
a remote, placid environment, Carrey’s sons–big, bruising homeboys–seem
to have inhaled hiphop effrontery from the media-saturated air. It’s a
nature-vs.-nurture razz. (Critic Gregory Solman pointed out the excellent accuracy
of the Farrelly brothers’ showing how styles of black, in-home entertainment
passed from Richard Pryor humanism in the boys’ youth to Chris Rock crudity
in their adolescence.) But that’s not just a fillip; the Farrellys update
My Three Sons to be the most affecting part of Me, Myself & Irene’s
plot (the Renee Zellweger romance is negligible). Carrey’s profane, snack-food-gorging
boys (Anthony Anderson as Jamaal, Jerod Mixon as Shonte and Mongo Brownlee as
Lee Harvey) are also loving, respectful geniuses–conversant with James
Gleick’s chaos theory and multilingual, while staying protective of their
father. This circumstance reworks the inspired premise of Carl Reiner’s
The Jerk (Steve Martin narrating, "I was born a poor black child")
into casual, amiable social commentary. So few critics have mentioned the Farrellys’
innovation–or come to grips with its joyous iconoclasm–that its effect
has gone underground. Subliminal but real. That’s the impact Keenen Ivory
Wayans should have aimed for, a roundabout subversion of cultural conventions.
Unfortunately, Scary Movie proves that black filmmakers have a new Hollywood
mission: helping audiences to continue to laugh themselves silly.

and Out: The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is David Drake’s sometimes
moving yet interminable one-man stage show on film. It’s best seen as unmoored
content–effusive inner turmoil over the politics surrounding the AIDS crisis.
Drake is overexplicit about the interior life missing from most recent gay movies–including
the deliberately taciturn Chuck & Buck. Meanwhile But I’m
a Cheerleader
is all surface. Jamie Babbit’s satire of gay conversion
rhetoric follows the insipid Girl, Interrupted, borrows the pink-frosting
lunacy of Ma Vie en Rose and the trite 12-step programming of Sandra
Bullock’s 28 Days. Too bad Will & Grace already
covered the same material less feebly.