Undercover Brother (2002)

Rated PG-13 for language, sexual humor, drug content and campy violence.

Starring Eddie Griffin, Chris Kattan, Denise Richards, Aunjanue Ellis, David Chappelle.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee.
Written by John Ridley and Michael McClullers.
Distributed by Universal Pictures.
83 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 6/10

  
Photo ©Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

Fizzled Funk

I know we're not supposed to take it seriously, but I can't shake the thought that Undercover Brother missed an opportunity to strongly present some profound social commentary. This racial comedy about "blackness" vs. "whiteness" that could have easily been a one-sided put-down exercise, but its funniest moments actually come when "blackness" is poking fun at itself.

For the first part of the movie, I thought that it was on to something by using the most ironic premise possible -- a secret organization called "The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D." is fighting against the machinations of "The Man," whose goal is to "keep the black man down" -- to expose embarrassing ways the black man keeps himself down. With this concept in mind, it was on its way to becoming Spike Lee's favorite message in the form of a Shaft parody. It certainly shows early signs of the potential to go down this path.

The B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. has a member named "Conspiracy Brother," who thinks that everything from the greeting "Hi!" to the Republican party is an instrument of oppression. His theories are so overblown that his colleagues have to constantly shoot them down. After the group discovers that the first black presidential candidate has decided open a chain of fried chicken restaurants, members sense the perpetuation of a bad stereotype. Meanwhile, by slamming "white culture" so much, they look like hypocrites when they cry foul if the same thing happens to "black culture." More hypocrisy is evident when the boys fantasize about sleeping with white women.

This amusing self-critique is balanced by a good-natured send-up of the funky spirit of the blaxploitation '70's. The main character, newly recruited Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), is a walking ode to that decade -- he sports a huge afro, wears a medallion, watches Jim Kelly movies, and spouts the catch-phrase "Solid!" He listens to a soundtrack straight out of classic "Soul Train." His first fight is hilarious, utilizing those '70's traditions of close-ups and freeze frames of every karate chop he dishes out. The movie may be commenting on negative black self-perception, but it also celebrates the jubilance of black culture.

For me, disappointment came when I realized that the "commentary" may have been incidental rather than intended. The movie gradually showed me that it was more interested in merely being an extended comedy skit than an actual satire. Yes, a goofy comedy was all I expected in the first place, but the glimpse of higher potential unfairly teased me to want something better. One feels a bit let down when the possibility of genius is replaced by a lineup of obvious and generic jokes. Some of the jokes are still funny -- the "catfight" scene in which previously combating males pull up chairs to watch comes to mind. And I'll give the movie credit for not resorting to toilet humor. Still, too many of the jokes are uninspired. Look! The white guy is trying to be black. Look! The paranoid black guy secretly smokes weed. Look! The black man is so good in bed that the white woman can't resist him.

By the time Undercover Brother reaches the climax, too many easy gags have diluted its cleverness. Silly fight scenes take over, including one unnecessarily gross dispatching of three unfortunate guards and an extended one-on-one battle that's more gratuitous than funny. Meanwhile, the "commentary" has been replaced by lightweight statements about teamwork and unity. It's sadly ironic that a movie about not losing the identity of blackness steadily ends up losing its own identity as a comedy that stands out from the crowd, thus failing to capitalize on its promising ideas.

©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 1, 2002

An edited version of this review appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.

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