Just as you're getting ready to crack the latest beach paperback, The New York Times comes along with another idea about what makes for good summer reading. "How Race Is Lived in America" is what the newspaper called the month-long series that ran in June. "Race relations are being defined less by political action than by daily experience, in schools, in sports arenas, in pop culture and at worship, and especially in the workplace," the editors asserted. The opening piece, about a Pentecostal church's struggles with integration, was a marvel of evenhandedness and empathy. Yet a subsequent article, detailing the creative clashes that went on behind the scenes of The Corner, an HBO miniseries, felt as cramped and inconclusive as its highly paid, hamstrung protagonists. When it comes to race, the article despaired, Hollywood is still a house divided.
We don't look to summer movies for big statements about race. Scored to the sound of car crashes and ray gun blasts, summer movies are usually as disposable as popcorn. Until recently, the ideal entertainments were known as "tent poles," for being capacious enough to embrace the widest possible audience. Trying to be all things to all people, black and white and Latino, these movies often turn out to be more provocative than their creators intend. Like reports from the front, they're tuned in to the cultural moods of the moment, the daily divides that the Times tried to capture in its series. Coherent arguments are beside the point. Instead, you find a grab bag of conflicting ideas, a pacifying political prize at the bottom of everyone's Cracker Jack box, no matter what the viewer's race or gender. How is race lived in America? Check out a multiplex in July. And listen to the crowd.
John Singleton's remake of Shaft can never have the cultural impact of Gordon Parks's 1971 original, which immortalized Richard Roundtree's suave private-eye hero and helped to usher in the film genre known as blaxploitation. The earlier movie's opening credits set the stage. With that unforgettable Isaac Hayes title song percolating in the background, Shaft saunters through Manhattan like he owns the place. This "black private dick" is comfortable in Harlem and Greenwich Village; he's earned the respect of small newsstand owners and big drug dealers, not to mention the cops who begrudgingly depend on him for access into worlds they only know from afar. Watching the original now, you're struck by how much roaming Shaft does. Not only is he handsome and sexy and turned out in leather; he's free, he's fluid, he moves. (He still can't get a cab, however.)
Shaft 2000, by contrast, opens with a slick but murky montage that is very James Bond in its fetishization of clothing, guns, and women. The story is again set in New York, and Samuel L. Jackson does his best with lines like, "It's my duty to please that booty." But this Shaft--a nephew of Roundtree's original--doesn't own the city. He's a cop, for one thing, not a private eye. And despite Jackson's way with a wisecrack, he's a far less commanding presence than his earlier counterpart. Take away the complicated facial hair and the sleek Giorgio Armani clothes, and this John Shaft is another hemmed-in black man in a city teeming with hostility. Any sexual magnetism is left curiously off-screen. Racial clatter punctuates nearly every frame of the movie, and cops are hardly immune; Shaft bristles when he hears another cop call a black suspect "cornbread." "Nazis with badges," he announces, scare him as much as the offenders they're out to arrest.
The new Shaft's shrewdly conceived plot turns on whether a black family can find justice after a hate crime. An unctuous white yuppie, Walter Wade, Jr. (Christian Bale), bashes in the head of a young black man hanging out with three white girls at a midtown bar. His powerful father bails him out, and he hightails it to Switzerland. Two years later, Shaft is waiting when Wade tries to sneak back into the country. Powerful connections allow Wade to make bail again. An enraged Shaft quits the police force, whipping his badge over the judge's head like a weapon in a kung-fu movie. "No lawyers, no politics, no rules, no regulations," he declares. Shaft will go it alone. If the 1971 private eye was a lone ranger, then his twenty-first-century counterpart has turned vigilante, like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.
As an action movie, the new Shaft improves on the leaden original in just about every way. As a cultural statement, the film is remarkably pessimistic. The fancy bar where the crime occurs seems to welcome an interracial group, save for its one lethal intruder. Singleton conspicuously places black lawn-jockey figures in several scenes around the bar, as if to say, "They'll take your money, but they won't ever welcome you in." By the end, the film's title character has racked up an impressive body count. Yet the most brutal scene shows Shaft administering tough love to a young black man in trouble. A waitress asks the detective to look after her son, who is beginning to fall in with street corner drug dealers. Shaft pistol-whips one arrogant dealer to a bloody pulp and warns the rest to steer clear of the boy. Other cops cruising the neighborhood look the other way. It's a complicated and disturbing moment; after all, these are the kids who embrace blaxploitation style made famous by the first Shaft and now endlessly recycled in rap music and videos. Today's Shaft, it seems, is forced to clean up the mess his uncle inadvertently created.
Entertainment Weekly reports that the Shaft shoot was an exceptionally troubled one, rocked by feuds between Singleton and Jackson on one side, and the white producer Scott Rudin and primary screenwriter Richard Price on the other. The compromises are evident throughout the film. Yet Shaft, the movie hero, has always been a middleman, threading his way between black and white worlds. The difference now is that the center barely holds. It's no longer just a black and white world; the film's most vivid character, Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), is a Dominican drug lord who hooks up with venal yuppie Wade to expand his drug trade downtown. Cops are utterly corrupt. If justice is served, Shaft concludes, the law will have little to do with it.
It's a long way from Shaft in Manhattan to Jim Carrey, with a split personality, in Rhode Island. But Peter and Bobby Farrelly, film makers who have yet to find a taboo they won't exploit, venture into sensitive racial territory in their comedy Me, Myself & Irene. Though Dumb & Dumber and There's Something About Mary have made heaps of money, the Farrelly brothers remain crummy film makers. Both Mary and Irene are visually undistinguished and terribly overlong. But audiences aren't flocking to their films for the witty byplay and sophisticated mise-en-scène. It's the rude bits that make the Farrelly style a brand name and lead other film makers (think American Pie) to up the ante in outrageousness.
By this standard, Me, Myself & Irene will leave audiences chattering about Carrey's antics. See birds crap in Jim's open mouth. Gasp as he suckles at a woman's breast, a milk stain covering his upper lip when he's through. The adolescent fascination with bodily functions, the bad-boy willingness to mock the unmockable, like the disabled, has become a Farrelly brothers hallmark. Irene adds race to the mix. It's the most provocative element in an otherwise slack and puerile film.
Carrey plays Charlie, a Rhode Island state trooper who lives in a cozy waterside cottage. With his good manners and H.R. Haldeman buzz cut, Carrey is the white guy that time forgot, a 1950s fella out of touch with today. Here and in The Truman Show, directors have revealed in Carrey a spacey innocence and blissful disengagement that make him ripe for humiliation. Irene's prologue shows Charlie deeply in love. Marriage follows. Then enters a snake in the carefully mowed grass: Charlie's wife falls for a black limousine driver--a dwarf, to boot. She gives birth to black triplets. But the ever-optimistic Charlie looks the other way, even when his fellow troopers question the children's parentage, and his wife leaves with her new beau.
Flash forward 15 years, and Charlie's boys are all grown up. They love their dad, even though, culturally, father and sons are a little far apart. He marvels at Jim Nabors; they talk trash and watch Richard Pryor videos. Like rap stars in action movies (Busta Rhymes shows up in Shaft), these three stooges have more street credibility than anyone else in the neighborhood. Lee Harvey (Mongo Brownlee) is as muscled and tattooed as Naughty by Nature's Treach; Jamaal (Anthony Anderson) and Shonte, Jr. (Jerod Mixon), are roly-poly clowns, like the late and unlamented Fat Boys. Charlie's not the smartest trooper around, but his sons are geniuses, breezing through their physics homework and dissing each other for missing easy questions on the SAT.
Inside this big happy family, Charlie is holding something in, and finally he cracks into a second personality, the volatile and abrasive Hank. Doctors diagnose him as an "advanced delusional schizophrenic with involuntary narcissistic rage." A shrink tells Charlie that he only hears what he wants to hear. Hank, his alter ego, is all id; he's the law-and-order man who truly deserves his buzz cut. Charlie tiptoes around confrontation, playing nice. But not Hank; he kicks ass.
Me, Myself & Irene is played for sophomoric laughs, as Charlie and Hank battle for control of one body and vie for the affections of Renée Zellweger's title character. The film makers flirt with, but never explore, even in comic terms, the implication that Hank himself is a product of white rage, the aggressive flip side to the meeker-than-thou Charlie. Whether making lewd passes at Irene or offending anyone within earshot, Hank croons like a late-night radio deejay, a lizard looking for a lounge. Had the film really wanted to make waves, Hank would be black: a pent-up expression of everything his well-mannered white half can't or won't express. Instead, Me, Myself & Irene flanks Charlie and Hank with more outsized, racialized personalities. The black triplets get the sassiest lines, and an albino named Whitey emerges as Charlie's sidekick and Hank's whipping boy. Everyone laughs at the dildo jokes, and the film ends in a mood of reconciliation that couldn't be further from the dourness of Shaft.
A black director paints a bitter urban portrait in the guise of an action movie. Two white directors let a few angry seams show in an otherwise innocuous crazy quilt. Interesting, but by the end of the summer, who'll remember? In the logic of Hollywood, it's all about results, not reflection. Given time, good ratings, and great reviews, even the creators of the HBO miniseries described in the Times had to admit the infighting was worth it. As long as Shaft and Me, Myself & Irene make money--and surely they will--offscreen disputes are forgotten. And the thorny, divisive issues raised in otherwise generic stories quickly disappear when a film attains box office success. The producers of Irene already say they'll spin off Charlie's triplets into their own movie. Samuel Jackson and Busta Rhymes drive off together at the end of Shaft, ready for their sequel. Brace yourself. And pass the popcorn. ¤
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