Funk Soul Brother
Keep that funk alive.
Between NBA commercials, Snoop videos and the recently increased visibility of Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, the funk seems to be everywhere, including the net, where "Undercover Brother," John Ridley's celebrated animated series, has been holding it down at urbanentertainment.com.
The titular hero wears purple bellbottoms and a large medallion, delights the ladies and works for the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., going undercover as "mild-mannered Anton Jackson, harmless enough for white people to trust him," in order to fight The Man.
A suave, stack-heeled superhero, Undercover Brother has fought discrimination in network television (Episode #4: "Going Prime Time"), college basketball corruption (Episode #8: "Sir Dunkalot") and Eminem (Episode #12: "Melts in Your Bleepin' Mouth"). When Anton spots trouble, he transforms into Undercover Brother, peeling off whatever disguise he's wearing, casting off his glasses and popping loose his gigantic Afro. Though he likes to believe the best of people and sincerely wants everyone to get along, he's not afraid to whoop ass when necessary. In Em's case, this meant ripping his head off, literally.
Aggressively clever, the series earned a tight following on the net. It was only a matter of time before its success would cost. And so, here comes "Undercover Brother," the movie, from Imagine Entertainment (Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's company) in collusion with originator Urban Entertainment. In this incarnation -- which is all about entertainment, in case you were wondering -- the hero is played by Eddie Griffin, a fellow brash and self-knowing enough to ward off concerns that (oh my!) the movie is full of stereotypes.
Indeed, as director Malcolm D. Lee recently told BET Tonight's Ed Gordon, this is the point. And what if, asked Gordon, certain viewers -- say, white ones -- don't get all the jokes? Well, that's OK. "The jokes," said Lee, "are for who they're for."
They're also damn funny. Yes, they're watered down for crossover consumption, no matter Gordon's apprehension. But they're simultaneously wide-ranging and specific enough to hit some well-deserving targets. The film begins with a familiar framework, taking up subgeneric conventions already worked over in "Charlie's Angels" and "Austin Powers," including the wink-wink overstatement regarding throwback fashion, music and plot. In this case, the underpinning is '70s blaxploitation, turned inside out and smoothed over. Even his disguises are cute: 80-year-old man, office nerd, all-smiles Jamaican caddy. Still, as written by the series creator and novelist John Ridley and Michael McCullers, the film makes its points.
It opens with a bit of pseudo-doc background, not exactly Undercover Brother's origin story, but a good reason for him to feel committed to the cause. Dennis Rodman, Erkel, Mr. T. You couldn't have picked easier targets, and they do their work. "These seemingly random events," intones a documentary-style voiceover, "were in fact orchestrated by The Man." Enter Undercover Brother, who first appears on screen in his gold '74 Coup de Ville, spinning in accident-avoiding circles so extravagant that even passersby are tripping over themselves and dropping their drinks. But he's smooth as can be, palming the power steering wheel and not even thinking about spilling his orange Big Gulp.
Undercover Brother's a solo act, doing right for the community and earning a slamming reputation to boot. But then he breaks into a bank's computer system in order to erase mortgage payments records for those in need of relief. Doing his good deed, Undercover Brother is espied by members of the underground B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., who haul him into headquarters (under Roscoe's Barber Shop). Here he meets the crew: the Chief (Chi McBride), Sistah Girl (Anjanue Ellis), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle, always excellent), and a hapless intern named Lance (Neil Patrick Harris), who performs blackness when called on, and sometimes when he's not ("We're gettin' all racial up in this piece!"). Pledged to squash racism and fight for social justice and the African American way of life, the group convinces Undercover Brother to join them.
Their first collabo: to beat back Operation Whitewash, wherein The Man devises to thwart the political career Colin-Powellish General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), by means of some dastardly mind-controlling drug. Boutwell abandons his campaign plans and starts selling fried chicken, licking his lips and extolling the virtues of hot sauce. Down at B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. HQ, the dumbfounded crew watches the general shuck and jive on TV. Conspiracy Brother's worst fears are confirmed: "Sometimes," he observes, "people -- mostly white people -- make things happen." The brothers -- and Sistah Girl -- all agree that it's time to send in Undercover Brother.
Before he can infiltrate The Man's office building, however, Undercover Brother must be trained in the wiles of Caucasian culture. Smart Brother wires him up with Caucasiavision, loading up his mind, Clockwork Orange-style, with images from Murder, She Wrote, as well as shots of square-dancers, the Backstreet Boys and Riverdancers. Stop! Stop! "Too much white!" whimpers Undercover Brother. Even for the cause, there's only so much you can take. Still, at the end of the process, he can eat mayonnaise sandwiches and recount the minutest of "Friends" details.
Where Undercover Brother's mission is to pass into the foreign culture, The Man's plan is to remain out of sight completely. Unfortunately, his major minion is excessively visible: Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan, who needs a leash, please) prances and bugs out his eyes when fretting that "they're taking over all aspects of our culture." When he hears a little Mary J. ("Family Affair," the Dre-beats), poor white boy just can't help but feel the funk. "Word. Fosheezy my neezy," he blurts, then claps his hand over his mouth, horrified that he's been so infected by the alien culture.
Tit for tat. The Man's counter-plan is to infect Undercover Brother back, to destroy his mojo, if you will. They send in their secret weapon, Penelope Snow, a.k.a. the White She Devil, a.k.a. the Black Man's Kryptonite (all bundled up as a big-haired and repeatedly hair-flipping Denise Richards). Though they're supposed to be working to opposite ends, the two hit it off. On one date, they rightfully butcher McCartney's "Ebony & Ivory" at a karaoke bar, and soon find themselves getting on the Love Train.
Within days, she has her short black superheroic man chowing down on drugged mayonnaise sandwiches (other examples of the demise of Black Culture, brought on by his descent, include an album full of Jay-Z covering Lawrence Welk hits and John Singleton directing a remake of Driving Miss Daisy). Lucky for Undercover Brother, lost and confused as he is, he has Sistah Girl to come save his ass.
Peppered with Chappellian hilarities (and the man can riff), Undercover Brother is more like Austin Powers than a hard-hitting satire, minus Mike Meyers' mania, plus Lee's deft direction and Griffin's own brand of energy. The film is raucously incoherent (a series of skits, really), granting equal time to ridiculous characters and genre-deconstructive insights. It's not going to change minds, but it reflects and satirizes an increasingly integrated, increasingly tense, and increasingly chaotic world. There's no turning around. As White She Devil puts it, "Once you've had Undercover Brother, there is no other." Or perhaps more clearly, as Conspiracy Brother corrects her, "Once you go black, you never go back." Perhaps she knows what she means.
Cynthia Fuchs, an associate professor of English, African American studies, and film & media studies at George Mason University, is the film/TV editor for PopMatters and film reviewer for Philadelphia City Paper.