Film and TV

Wrong Wayans

Perhaps some day in the distant future, film scholars and academics concerned with race relations will devote papers and lectures and even entire books to Keenen Ivory Wayans's White Chicks, in which two FBI agents, played by Shawn and Marlon Wayans, don Caucasian masks and impersonate white women in order to catch a kidnapper. (This is allegedly the plot, though the narrative is so slipshod that to pretend it's about anything at all would be giving it more credit than it's due.) Maybe they will draw historical corollaries to such antecedents as The Jazz Singer, Amos and Andy, Black Like Me and Soul Man, among others, in which white men sport blackface; this, ostensibly, is the black man's revenge for such offerings that were either cruel or cowardly. It's also an extension, and bastardization, of the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy slathered himself in white makeup to discover what he always suspected: that being white in America meant getting a free pass (and newspaper).

Or perhaps historians will take as their jumping-off point a scene in which a buff black basketball star, played by Baadasssss!'s Terry Crews, pays $50,000 for a date with Marlon in white face and fake breasts. It could easily be mistaken for a subversive, if clumsy, commentary on slavery; it's particularly chilling when Brittany Daniel, as wealthy heiress Megan Vandergeld, completes the transaction by yelling "Sold!" as though Crews's character were renting to own. Most likely, though, historians will begin at the end, when Crews discovers Marlon's true identity and is appalled not because he's really a man, but because he's black, then sneeringly refers to him as a "jigaboo," with the epithet intended as a punchline. Cornel West . . .paging Dr. Cornel West.

To even begin to describe White Chicks as offensive would be giving it too much credit. It will disappear from theaters long before it can raise a ruckus among black filmmakers and film-goers who will damn it as a thousand steps in the wrong direction; it will join Soul Plane as it, too, crashes and burns in infamy. And ultimately, it will join most of Keenen's other films, among them the first two Scary Movies and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, as forgettable, dismissible comedies that imagine themselves as anything-goes Airplane!-styled satires in which everyone's fair game but that aren't clever enough to come up with even a single joke or deserving target. Wayans, dating back to the highly overrated series In Living Color, has always thought it funny enough just to make fun of people because of their skin color or physical disabilities. He can give no real reason for doing it, aside from the cheap grin that comes at someone else's expense.

Here the best the movie can offer as a target are rich white folks who summer in the Hamptons and dream of getting on the cover of a magazine, but they're already parodies; inflated by Botox and collagen, these folks are no more real than Santa Claus. Wayans drops his brothers, who collaborated on the story and screenplay (and called in three more writers to help), into the middle of their social scene to disrupt the proceedings. But instead of satire, we're treated to diarrhea jokes, dogs dangled from the windows of speeding SUVs, and tasteless sobriquets bestowed upon anyone who looks vaguely ethnic.

But, again, the movie can't work up the energy to outrage. If its premise is as thin as Brittany Daniel's frame, which is damned near transparent, then its execution is non-existent. The gag's supposed to be that everyone in the movie believes Shawn and Marlon actually look like white women; even their best friends, among them the horribly wasted Busy Phillips (Freaks and Geeks) and Jessica Cauffiel (Legally Blonde), mistake these men as their real-life counterparts. But they look not only nothing like the girls whose identities they've assumed, but nothing like human beings -- except maybe women who've undergone radical skin grafting after their entire faces were burned off. They also resemble Mike Myers in the Halloween movies, who sported an inside-out William Shatner mask and still looked more lifelike than the Wayanses.

Seventeen years ago, Keenen co-wrote Hollywood Shuffle, in which a struggling actor grew increasingly frustrated and appalled by the kinds of roles being offered to actors of color; beneath its wryly raised eyebrow seethed palpable anger, which it shared with Spike Lee's debut, She's Gotta Have It, released a few months earlier. Wayans and collaborator Robert Townsend demanded roles of which they and their audience could be proud and damned the industry for ghettoizing them in the minstrel show. Wayans hasn't lived up to his part of the bargain, but instead peddles the same images he claimed to loathe and hides behind the tepid guise of satire. Yet a major studio shelled out millions for something like this, while Spike Lee's corrosive, sprawling, exciting and fierce new film She Hate Me was rejected by the majors and found only foreign investors and independent distribution. And that's the most offensive thing about White Chicks and the system that allowed it to happen in the first place.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky