I saw a poster the other day for “The Best Man Holiday,” with Taye Diggs, Terence Howard, (probably) Morris Chestnut, and a bunch of other black actors, and a thought occurred to me:
Nearly every comedy with an all-black ensemble cast has the same basic story: There is a major event going on (a holiday, a wedding, etc.). The men and their girlfriends/wives travel to a location, and the men and women immediately separate for almost the rest of the movie. (For reasons unexplained, the men and women never have many scenes as a group; when they do, it’s almost always near the end.) They do so begrudgingly at first, but through a series of humorous mishaps and deep conversations, they realize how much they’ve enjoyed being around each other. All problems are solved by the end of the film (the catalyst is usually one member of the group in a life-or-health-threatening situation) and there is usually some sort of group dinner scene where we can see everyone getting along. On occasion, one of the members of the group will die, but it’s never one of the bigger names. R&B music plays, end credits, everyone goes home. And it is a complete waste of time.
(I’m not including movies like “Friday” in this category, because while the leads in those films ended up being superstars in their own right, they weren’t at the time the movie was produced. I’m talking about all-black ensemble comedies with actors who have already achieved a certain level of mainstream popularity.)
Look, I totally get why a lot of people like seeing movies with all-black casts, and I don’t mean to imply that there have to be white people in the movie for it to be worthwhile. But all too often, these movies fall into the same recycled tropes we’ve seen a thousand times before, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how these movies continue to be greenlit. They have absolutely zero ambition and eschew breaking new ground in order to stick to a formula that has had success in the past.
(It also doesn’t help that most established black movie stars won’t touch these ensemble pieces of shit with a ten-foot pole. Why? Because they know the truth: these movies are horrid. If I ever see Denzel and Will Smith teaming up in a Tyler Perry flick, I’ll hang myself with my belt.)
From a business standpoint, I get it. These movies typically have a $15-20 million budget, and they usually make around $45-50 million, which is a pretty decent profit. But that guaranteed profit also handcuffs the studios, black writers and black actors into saying “Well, this formula has worked in the past, so let’s not kill the golden goose.” Thus, we’re left with a surplus of shitty, formulaic, unimaginative movies. After all, nobody’s going to take a chance on an adventurous black comedy when they can make “Madea Goes To Rehab” or whatever the fuck for $25 million and generate $40 million in profit every single time.
I asked a black coworker of mine (I KNOW BLACKS) what she thought of most black comedies, and her response was noncommittal at best. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of it was “Yeah, they don’t break any new ground, but they’re entertaining and they focus on things that black people see more commonly than white people.” Fine, fair point, but I still think that’s a lazy way to make a movie, just like I think black comics who only talk about “black” topics are lazy hacks. When trying to entertain people, relying solely on race is a total cop-out. Good comics and writers can make their work accessible to everybody; Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Louis C.K. and George Carlin are all examples of that. Earthquake, Michael Blackson, George Lopez, Dane Cook, Daniel Tosh, et al are examples of lazy comics limiting their works to a specific group of people instead of trying to broaden their horizons.
One other point: the aforementioned black coworker asked me “If ‘Knocked Up’ had an all-black cast, would you see it?” If they kept the same story, then of course I would, because it was a well-written story. If they changed it to a “black” comedy, with all the lazy jokes and stereotypes, probably not. And maybe I’m way off-base here, but it seems like all of those movies have the same jokes:
-“You’re so country!”
-“You grew up poor!”
-“You grew up rich, so now I’m gonna make fun of you for it!”
-“My aunt sure is crazy!”
-“WHITE PEOPLE ARE STRANGE!”
If that’s how the all-black version of “Knocked Up” unfolds, then I’ll be saving my money, thank you very much.
Another note: I’m fully aware of the existence of “white” comedies, like “Road Trip,” every “American Pie” movie, etc., and I detest those movies for the same reason: they’re lazy, they’re formulaic, and they don’t take any risks because they make a set amount of money as long as they follow all the beats of all the shitty comedies that have come before. And you could make the argument that I’m unfairly singling out black comedies when white comedies can be just as inaccessible to non-white people. Plus, I’m sure there’s a history of good comedic scripts written for black audiences (yet still accessible to all audiences) getting passed over in favor of mediocre-to-shitty scripts written for white audiences. I’m not saying it’s fair, because it most certainly isn’t, but I don’t think that’s a valid excuse for not writing a movie that everyone can enjoy, regardless of race or ethnicity. If the script is good enough, the movie will get made. In fact, you know what’s a good test case for this theory? The Chris Rock version of “Death At A Funeral.” It was originally a British dark comedy starring Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage, and Chris Rock remade it with a black cast. And you know what? It’s a good movie. It sucks that there are only a handful of black actors who have enough clout to push through a movie like that, but that doesn’t diminish my point that a script doesn’t have to be aimed solely at black audiences to be accessible to black audiences.
Also, no more Eugene Levy. In any movie. We’ve had quite enough.