ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
In a racist society trying to present an illusion of inclusion and openness,
what better way to re-enforce white supremacy and black subordination
than in a vehicle where people are so busy laughing they turn off
their analytical faculties and allow themselves to be brainwashed?
A Critique by Junious Ricardo Stanton
In its first weekend out, Bringing Down The House starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah was the top grosser bringing in over 31 million dollars. This weekend I went to see the film to determine why it was the top money maker, to see who was going to see the movie and get some idea about the images and message the film was putting out. Most of the people in the theater were white and I was surprised at the number of adults who brought their children to see the picture. Both Steve Martin and Queen Latifah have large followings as comedian, movie star, rapper and television sit com headliners respectively.
I must admit parts of the film were funny due to Martin’s ability to steal a scene with just a look or facial expression and some of the antics, situations and scenes in the movie that centered around Martin and Queen Latifah. That being said, the movie re-enforced every negative stereotype about African people imaginable. Perhaps that’s why it is so popular?
We must remain cognizant of the fact movies are not produced in a socio-political or cultural vacuum. Every motion picture reflects the values and biases of the writers, producers and directors as well as the agenda of the studio and in some cases a corporate/government partnership. In the case of Bringing Down The House the stereotypes center around sexuality, physical comedy, lack of scruples, criminality and being out of control. Steve Martin plays Peter Sanderson a hard working over achieving, uptight, unhip, out of it, yet successful tax lawyer who is disconnected from his children and ex-wife.
Sanderson meets Queen Latifah’s character Charlene in an Internet chat room. Charlene unbeknownst to Sanderson is an escapee from a detention center where she was being held on charges of bank robbery; having been framed by her boyfriend. Communicating via a legal chat room Charlene, misrepresenting herself, comes across as a knowledgeable attorney who stimulates Sanderson’s interest. They set up a date and when Charlene shows up at his posh home with her round the way girl self, the stuff hits the fan. As the plot develops she totally disrupts Sanderson’s staid and bland lifestyle by moving in with him working as a nanny for his children in exchange for him working on her case helping her to clear her name.
As I said some scenes in the movie are funny even though they play off racial stereotypes. Sanderson’s ex-sister in law is a gold digging skeezer who gets into a fight with Charlene, a take no mess sistah, the first time they meet. Charlene can duke it out with the best of them, man or woman and by the end of the movie she does. Character wise, we have the dorkey successful lawyer, the anorexic skeezer white girl, the buxom, hot tamale, round the way sistah who is on the lam and several minor characters of note, namely Sanderson’s overly sexed middle aged work buddy who knows Hip Hop lingo and has the hots for Charlene even though he is white and Sanderson’s ex wife who still loves him but is trying to establish a relationship with a much younger man, perhaps to make Sanderson jealous.
Charlene’s boyfriend is a playa, a gangstahe’s the one who framed her. We have an assortment of characters who fit in varying stereotypes like Sanderson’s bosses and an aggressive unscrupulous young attorney at the firm who aggravates Sanderson but at the same time spurs his competitive juices. None of this would be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that aside from a cameo role of a receptionist all of the black’s in the film were stereotypical. The scenes in the “hood” featured the usual ghetto thug types, there were no blue collar or bougie black folks except in a restaurant scene in which Sanderson takes Charlene out and she persuades him to get up off his uptight behind and dance, which in itself is a stereotype. So we are treated visually to the nimble fluid black mamma and the goofy out of sync white guy on the dance floor.
The messages in the film as in all films are both subtle and overt. For example, Sanderson is detached from his children, a son with leaning problems and his hot to trot teenaged daughter, yet Charlene comes in and immediately bond’s with them while helping to loosen up their up tight dad. The wealthy client Sanderson is attempting to woo for his firm is a bigot. When she visits his home she reveals her antiquated views on race relations which offend even Sanderson and his kids and totally infuriate Charlene who Sanderson persuades to act as his cook. In the film her experiences and racist values are made to look outdated but Sanderson’s snobbery and bigotry are made to appear less virulent and curable.
There are enough stereotypes for all the characters. Latifah can rumble naturally ’cause she’s from the hood but the white girl holds her own because she seriously trains and works out. The most disturbing aspect of the film is that none of the few black males in it have any redeeming qualities. They all fit the stereotype: big, dark-skinned, menacing, and violent. So while the rest of the main and secondary characters change (except for the sister in law) are rewarded for their efforts or get their just due, the black men are depicted in such a way they engender no empathy whatsoever from the audience.
Even if for example males in the audience wanted to relate to Latifah’s boyfriend, they’d find themselves relating or attempting to bond with a character who is disloyal, predatory, and so cold blooded he tries to kill Latifah’s character. In the end, Martin’s character clears Latifah’s name, helps capture Latifah’s evil boyfriend, lands the millionaire client, quits the stuffy firm. He and his buddy start their own tax law firm plus he gets his wife back! As for Latifah’ character, she’s free and clear but has no visible means of support and as the credits get set to roll, she’s about to get giggy with Martin’s partner who has the hots for her whose hair she just cornrowed. Think about the subliminal message in that!
We must learn to use our critical discernment because in this culture, the underlying theme of all media is white supremacy juxtaposed against the subordination of the “other”be it African, Native American, or Asian. Media is designed to impact the way we see ourselves. In a racist society trying to present an illusion of inclusion and openness, what better way to re-enforce white supremacy and black subordination than in a vehicle where people are so busy laughing they turn off their analytical faculties and allow themselves to be brainwashed?
14 March 2003
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updated 19 July 2010