Scary Movie is Funny; Shaft is Scary
Shaft directed by John Singleton
Scary Movie directed 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 Floats 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 Movie'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.
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