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[whitespace] Aunjanue Ellis and Eddie Griffin
Photograph by Kerry Kayes

Soul Siblings Ub: (Eddie Griffin) and Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) take on The Man in 'Undercover Brother.'

Subversive Stupidity

'Undercover Brother' isn't afraid to get smart about being dumb

By Allie Gottlieb

NOTE TO reader(s): For the sake of this essay, "stupid movie" doesn't mean a film made by stupid people. Rather, it means a celluloid story that's accessible to a stupid audience. This being the case, a movie's stupidity parallels its digestibility. That is, happily suspending disbelief that, say, women who fight make cat noises shows an enthusiasm for swallowing the sweet mush of go-down-easy gags.

It would appear that the overarching purpose of the stupid-movie genre--the cheap laugh--is an exclusive end. Not so. A stupid movie can do something else important. Witness Undercover Brother; blaxploitation can be really, really funny.

Undercover Brother, directed by Spike Lee's (perhaps less intellectually tortured) cousin Malcolm Lee and starring former class clown and kind of successful comic actor Eddie Griffin (Double Take, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, The New Guy), Aunjanue Ellis (Girls Town), Denise Richards (Drop Dead Gorgeous) and Chris Kattan (Saturday Night Live, Corky Romano), turns an Internet-animated series by Urban Media into a live-action feature.

It's about a be-Afroed black secret agent with tight pants who penetrates whitey world to bring down The Man. Like a Leslie Nielsen film combined with a good cheerleader flick, Undercover Brother promises an empty-headed celebration of slapstick and stereotypes. What else could we want from a summer movie?

But wait, there's more. This film's also helping to keep a revolution alive. It's an extension of the short-lived, subversive '70s blaxploitation movement, revived here and there by films like 1988's I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, 1997's Jackie Brown (starring blaxploitation's heap topper Pam Grier of Foxy Brown and Coffy) and 2000's remake of everybody's favorite mutha-shut-yo-mouth Shaft.

Blaxploitation was a weird phenomenon. As the name suggests, it exploited black pop culture by reducing African Americans to a set of sexy pimp and hooker caricatures. At the same time, Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song and movies that followed its pioneering example threw a spotlight on black-made and black-carried productions, thereby admitting that an otherwise invisible race existed.

The Undercover Brother trailer shows Griffin as pseudo-slick Anton Jackson heading into a Get Smart-type restricted area. "Blackness confirmed. You got soul," a voice says before he's admitted. Jackson tosses Afro picks in a slo-mo moment made somehow sillier with the background funk provided by Snoop Dogg. The trailer hints at the man-as-center-of-earth sexist tension between black woman Sistah Girl in her gold-colored, hip-hugging leather outfit and white woman Penelope Snow, a.k.a. White She Devil, clad in tight white leather, fighting for sex-object supremacy while men stand by transfixed.

The film won't bother trying to work out the contradictions symptomatic in emphasizing black heroism while suppressing its human complexity. That's good news for audiences whose brains have melted from the summer heat. Thankfully, Undercover Brother challenges the notion that whites have a corner on the stupid summer-movie market.


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From the May 16-22, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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