Undercover Brother (review)

Oh, Brother

I hate that something that is intended to be and should be plain, simple, silly fun has to be politicized, but there’s just no getting around it with Undercover Brother. Maybe I’m not allowed to talk about these things, since I’m just a clueless white girl. But I’m going blather on cluelessly anyway.

Shaft and Foxy Brown and other 70s “blaxploitation” figures were caricatures, sure, but they were powerful caricatures, ones that embodied a cultural rage and a previously unheeded cultural strength. Undercover Brother wants to parody them, with his mile-high ‘fro and land-whale Cadillac and funkier-than-thou attitude, and maybe he could get away with it in one of two instances: 1) if our society truly had achieved a degree of colorblindness, or 2) if Undercover Brother the movie pretended it had. If the day comes that we can laugh at racism, Undercover Brother might be funny.
Instead, Eddie Griffin’s (John Q) Brother swaggers around in polyester suits and platform boots and invites us to laugh at him — and not with him — and at his cluelessness, and does not invite us to see him as much of a threat to anything, despite his (cartoonish) kung-fu skills. He’s a joke. Undercover Brother could have been another Austin Powers, clueless but charming and, more importantly, necessary in a battle against the bad guy — Dr. Evil’s puny monetary demands may have been funny, but he did threaten to take over the world if they weren’t met, and only Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, had the mojo to stop him.

But The Man is no Dr. Evil. Yes, The Man (Robert Trumbull) is an actual supervillain out to keep a brother down, and maybe that’s a nice tweak of the kind of brother David Chappelle’s (The Nutty Professor) Conspiracy Brother is satirizing, with his nefarious explanations for the most mundane of happenings. But The Man is also a joke, all the way around, bent on “preventing” “black culture” from “infecting” “white culture,” as if it hadn’t already happened, as if the two were separate, as if there were any way to stop it. Who’d want to be without rock ‘n’ roll or Denzel Washington anyway? This already-lost battle is, I suppose, alluded to in The Man’s evil henchboy, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan: Monkeybone — could we drop Kattan on a deserted island somewhere and never, ever return for him?), who can’t stop his feet from tapping out a funky beat. Ha ha.

The Man is no threat, none at all, or he wouldn’t be if the script weren’t as bigoted as The Man himself is. The Man has developed a virus that turns black people into cultural white people, and he plans to distribute this virus through the food sold at a new chain of fried chicken stores. The horrible thing, the truly offensive thing is: The Man’s plan works. The Man’s assumptions about fried-chicken-eatin’ black people should be what makes him the bad guy. That the script actually allows his plan to succeed — indicating that yup, sure, all people with some African ancestry can’t help love that fried chicken — makes the filmmakers the bad guys.

Throw me a bone here, people.

Okay, maybe, there was a chance that the entire outdated feel of Undercover Brother could have worked in its favor if Undercover Brother and The Man resided in their own clueless little world that had little connection to reality, to the present day. Alas, enter B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a modern, top-secret, high-tech organization which exists to fight The Man. All those periods distract you from the fact that “B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.” isn’t actually an acronym for anything, and from the fact that the organization doesn’t make much sense, anyhow: Here’s enormous peoplepower and money and effort going into a fight with an enemy who’d just shrivel up on his own eventually anyway. There’s a hint early on of both B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. and Undercover Brother fighting for something a little more meaningful in what is really a class, not a race, war — wiping banking records so poor homeowners don’t get foreclosed on — but that is instantly forgotten once fried chicken is on the plate, so to speak. Golly, I sure do loves that fried chicken, yes’m!

There are so many, many things about culture, society, and our perceptions of race that are ripe for satire, such as the idea of race at all, or the idea that anyone with just slightly less than milky pale skin is “black.” But that would be hard, and the result would be less likely to appeal to, ahem, “urban” audiences than a movie in which white girls can’t help falling for a brother and black men who wear khakis have sold out to whitey. It’s all just an advertisement for the funkadelic soundtrack anyway. And fried chicken.

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