was a very surprising film, when I first heard about it, I was skeptical, but I did think the trailers were funny, and the good reviews on Friday really clinched it for me. It’s a movie in a similar vein to the Austin Powers
movies, as both are spoofs that reference the James Bond series, but instead of a campy, loving spoof of the swinging 60s, mod London, we get a loving, sometimes campy, spoof/homage to 70s blaxploitation films. Other parallels, a secret agent seemingly out of another era (though instead of time travel or cryogenics, Undercover Brother’s style is a completely conscious decision to live at the height of black culture, circa 1972), and a plot that is more or less a string of interrelated gags, loosely tied together by a main plot line. In this case, our hero Undercover Brother joins the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a secret organization dedicated to preserving “truth, justice, and the Afro-American Way, since 1972," to combat the nefarious, all-white organization led by the Man, who is dedicated to the continued subjugation of the black race, in this case, mind control against the leaders of black political, intellectual, and entertainment life (turning them into white bred, sell outs), the first being Billy Dee William's war hero general, the first serious African-American presidential candidate. The Man brainwashes the general instead to open a chain of fried chicken restraints to the horror of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. (at one point, he gives away 32oz bottles of Malt Liquor with each purchase, a reference to Williams's former role as a pitchman for Colt 45).
Like, the Austin Powers
movies, the film does rely on audience knowledge of both James Bond movies (Undercover Brother’s gold 1970s Cadillac Coup de Ville has been outfitted with a “rocket-launcher” eight track player and an oil slick that utilizes afrosheen) and blaxploitation films, to the point of embracing the low-rent, but lively aesthetics of the original films: deliberately cheesy back-screen projection (another great joke is the few fake rocks that fall behind the main characters as they talk during the denouement); slow motion martial arts; canted angles; zoom-ins; various split screen formats; and freeze-frames; the 1970s funk and R&B soundtrack (the film features an extended cameo by James Brown), not to mention the clothes and hair styles. The whole thing is directed with flair by Malcolm Lee, who may not have the skills of his cousin, but who gets the job done.
But the film is not dependent on the audience’s knowledge of 1970s blaxploitation and kung fu movies, and unlike the Austin Powers
films, it doesn’t really rely on spoofing other well known media formats (though it does, Chi McBride, the Chief, in this movie, btw, everyone has a nickname like Smart Brother and White She-Devil, who plays the gruff, angry, constantly yelling black authority figure, like Inspector Todd in the Beverly Hills Cop
movies; he even upbraids Undercover Brother before he even works for him, and has pictures of many black characters from film and TV, like Danny Glover and André Braugher, on the wall behind him; at one point, he says “I’m too old for this shit,” the film then rack focuses and Danny Glovers picture comes into focus, and McBride turns slightly to the picture) or contemporary events. Instead, the film utilizes the all pervasive American problem of racism and racial stereotyping. The film is anarchic in it’s targets, the problem spans the ideological spectrum so no one goes untouched, especially well-meaning liberalism, as evidenced by the hilarious karaoke scene with “Ebony and Ivory,” and there are many riffs on both black and white stereotypes.
The humor of the film operates on many different levels. Much of it is hilariously lowbrow or referential (the golf cart chase across the golf course, replaying so many clichés from 1970s cop shows and movies; the the scene from the trailer where they talk to the “brainwashed” sell-out UB about sleeping with white women; the Sapphic cat fight in the shower, where UB and the two evil male henchmen stop to get chairs, eat snacks, and drink beer together while watching the show (not that the film is completely sexist, Sistah Girl is the smartest and strongest character in the film, and basically only Sistah Girl and White She-Devil kick ass in the film, all of the other men in the film, except for UB is pretty ineffectual); or when Neil Patrick Harris’s B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. intern, a recipient of Affirmative Action, gets called a sissy and absolutely crushes three Man henchmen, ripping the heart out of one’s chest, the spine out of the other, and quashing the last guys head to a pulp, it’s hilarious), but also some is relatively subtle. I saw the film with an audience that was primarily teenaged, and since I was the only one laughing, I guess a lot of it went over some of the people’s heads: the patronizing talk of the white newscasters when they talk about Billy Dee Williams's general (“he’s so well spoken’), the animated commercial for the General’s fried chicken commercial which ends on an image that could come straight out of Bamboozled
, or how Denise Richard’s White She-Devil would never pronounce Sistah Girl’s name right “Tonja,” much to the annoyance of Sistah Girl. I’m not saying that the film’s humor is profound, but it is often truthful and pointed, and leads up to the film’s central message, as the white intern Lance and White She-Devil team up with the black B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D in a show of real racial unity to overthrow the Man, whose henchmen’s worst fear is that, gasp, that our one culture will meld into one (or course, the Man’s fey henchmen, Mr. Feather, played by Chris Kattan, can’t help but react to black culture when he hears it; and it is revealed that even the Man can use “African-American” slang). I think the films attitude is succinctly expressed by Chi McBride’s Chief, who says at one point that it is a great day for “black people of all races.”
Cool and breezily fun, I can only wish that I could spin my car around without spilling any of my Orange Gulp, but I can’t even walk and drink at the same time.