This movie is a fascinating mess. It’s about a black television producer, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), who is put on the spot by his obnoxious white boss (Michael Rapaport) to come up with a hit show. In a sort of “screw you, go ahead and fire me” gesture, he develops an idea for a modern-day minstrel show, complete with watermelon patches and characters in blackface who can’t resist fried chicken.
After recruiting two struggling street performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) to be the stars of the show, he pitches the idea to his boss. Neither he nor his assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith) are prepared for the enthusiasm with which the boss greets the proposal. Now they have to actually make this travesty! (Being corporate careerists, they don’t see any other option.) Things only get worse for them all when the show premiers on TV and becomes a huge hit in the ratings.
This is not a movie that gives you sympathetic characters to root for or a coherent narrative to draw you along. It is entertaining and funny, at least in the first half, but what really interested me was the cultural and psychological commentary the director was making. He covers a lot of ground and skewers a number of “types”, among them the self-loathing corporate black man who makes himself “whiter than white” to succeed; the clueless culture-stealing white man who considers himself an expert on black experience because he’s married to a black woman and speaks in street slang; the drunken hip-hop rowdies who are completely oblivious to their exploitation at the hands of corporate America; the dancer who “just wants to hoof it” and willfully ignores the wider implications of what he’s doing; the audience that is only too ready to forget their moral objections to racist entertainment when other people tell them it’s OK to do so. The variations on cognitive dissonance and cultural appropriation are truly illuminating.
What makes the movie a mess is the disorganized plot and the ending, which devolves into a hail of bullets that doesn’t make any sense or match the rest of the film tonally. Nevertheless, I do recommend seeing it. The ideas alone are worth it.