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Whitey doesn’t have a clue: (l-r) Martin, Latifah and Levy in Bringing Down the House.

Black Woman’s Burden
By Laura Leon

Bringing Down the House
Directed by Adam Shankman

It seems as if this movie should be titled Bringin Down Da House, if only because promos hard-sell us on the idea of homegirl Queen Latifah shakin’ it up at the expense of uptight lawyer and would-be boyfriend Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin). But Latifah is also the executive producer of this film, and the fact that the movie is spelled in the, er, Queen’s English is subtle proof that the multitalented star is trying to have it both ways, using this movie as a way to gain entree to a middle America that hasn’t yet warmed up to Living Single or “Ladies First,” while playing the black- people-make-white-people-funny card.

Written by Jason Filardi, Bringing Down the House is about how an escaped—but of course innocent—convict, Charlene (Latifah), can make Peter realize that family comes before career. At the same time, she helps him land rich client Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), befriends daughter Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and teaches son Georgey (Angus T. Jones) how to read. Oh, and did I mention that she can pose as the family nanny or, in a pinch, don a maid’s uniform to play Mammy/Hazel for an important dinner party? Throughout the movie, there is a disturbing thread of old-time racism, which, given Latifah’s dignity and strength, seems remarkable. Without exception, Charlene, her clothes, her mannerisms and her lingo, are the brunt of the joke, whereas Peter and his cronies are funny only in the way they (perhaps echoing the intended audience’s instincts) react to her.

Latifah and Martin are a good team, to the extent that the inane script allows them to be, but director Shankman seems nervous about letting their subtly percolating relationship ever boil over into anything approaching romance. Instead, we have burlesque moments that play up Latifah’s ample bosoms and rolling hips against Martin’s whiteness, which equates sexual inadequacy. Only Eugene Levy, as Peter’s associate, retains any dignity as he cleverly purrs lines like, “Swing it, you cocoa goddess” and “You got me twisted up in the game” with no attempt at milking the humor of a Jewish guy speaking ghetto. It’s no coincidence that his lines are rewarded with the audience’s only true belly laughs.

Overall, Bringing Down the House retreads that time-honored, if ridiculous, idea that white people can only be sane, hip and even saintly if they allow blacks to help them coax out their inner homeboys. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy had it down much better in 48 Hours, if only because each character was allowed to make fun of the other, and still retain their respective honor and intelligence. Yeah, they became buddies in the end, but, in essence, they were still who they were. The makers of Bringing Down the House, Latifah included, are too timid to go this route, let alone give Charlene any real power or vitriol; instead, we have a movie that could have been made 40 years ago.

 

Black Hawk Dull

Tears of the Sun
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

“God go with you,” says a missionary to the Navy SEAL offering him a helicopter ride to safety. “God already left Africa,” replies the commando. Set in Nigeria in a fictionalized here and now, Tears of the Sun, from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, aims to go Black Hawk Down a few notches better. In this lushly crafted military flick, emotions run to code red and the participants are sketched in thick outlines. No morally ambivalent actions or motivations for Fuqua; by the time Bruce Willis as the special-ops commando outmaneuvers a genocidal Nigerian militia, it’s three cheers (or tears) for the U.S. of A. (next stop: Iraq).

Lt. A. K. Waters (Willis) hasn’t cracked a smile since basic training. With his shaved head, worn grimace and laconic cynicism, Waters is one of those killing machines (the prototype being Chow Yun Fat’s assassin in Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers) who obeys orders with ruthless precision. He and his squad are sent to the African coast to “extract critical personalities” (meaning Americans) from the ethnic-cleansing raging in Nigeria. This conflict is neatly fabricated out of incidents from Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria’s civil war of 30 years ago into a campaign of Moslems slaughtering Christians. The national militia, who are distinguished by their maroon berets, are barely identifiable as Islamic—apparently, the filmmakers didn’t want to be too obvious, saving their heavy righteousness for the strife between Waters and Dr. Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci), an Italian doctor who runs the mission’s bush hospital. Hendricks is American by marriage to her late husband and therefore must be extracted.

The hot-blooded doctor, whose intensity has not been tempered by the harsh realities of practicing medicine in a war zone, refuses to leave without her 70 or so patients. Perhaps inspired by Hendricks’ heaving bosom as she runs around with her shirt half open in a state of reckless distress, Waters agrees to take those refugees who are able to walk to the helicopters. The other three missionaries won’t leave the severely wounded, but since none of them is played by an international beauty like Bellucci, they are allowed to stay behind. After a time-consuming hike to the LZ, Waters abandons the refugees and muscles the doctor into the chopper. After flying over a killing field, he decides to disobey orders and lead an overland rescue mission to Cameroon.

Never mind that this change of heart is drastic enough to have required a transplant; the implication is that the doctor has pierced Waters’ armored conscience with her humanitarian ardor. And then, for seemingly no other reason than to have an excuse for a temper tantrum, Hendricks halts the march for a rest break, even though she knows the militia is hot on their heels. The film’s entire setup could’ve been dispensed with if the doctor and the lieutenant had simply exchanged intel. It doesn’t help that Willis is operating on autopilot while Bellucci is in overdrive. The actual acting is carried out by the squad members, including a black SEAL (Eamonn Walker) who is forced to contribute to the film’s pervasive whiff of paternalism by telling Waters: “These are my people, too.”

Stylistically, Tears of the Sun is equally in thrall to The Mission, with its mystical shots of forested mountains; and Apocalypse Now, reflected by the gleam of Waters’ shiny pate, the refugees’ shiny eyes, and Hendricks’ shiny lips in the tropical gloaming (tropical gloaming being Hollywood shorthand for Conrad’s heart of darkness). The film doesn’t kick into gear until the squad catches the militia in the act of committing atrocities. The battle sequences are tensely executed, with the rape and torture of the villagers being left mostly to the imagination in a way that only increases the horror. Even so, the fighting and its related plot twist are carefully choreographed to emphasize the squad’s heroism and self-sacrificing connection to the refugees.

By trying to be both topical and mythic, Tears winds up a patriotic crock. As for the romance, after Hendricks’ umpteenth emotional outburst, Waters tells her, “Oh, cut the shit.” It’s the most believable line in the movie.

—Ann Morrow


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