2003, Touchstone. Directed by Adam Shankman. Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Sexually themed content and dialogue; comically intended violence; brief recreational drug use; an instance of profanity.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Bringing Down the House thinks it is enlightened because it is down on white culture and down with black culture. It is not. Along with National Security earlier this year, it represents a step backward for race relations, and a step backward for black characters in Hollywood from such films as Barbershop, Drumline, and Antwone Fisher.
The poster art tells you everything you really need to know about the high-concept plot. Steve Martin, well-dressed, obviously professional, but reticent and anxious, leans timidly away from a sassy Queen Latifah looking "ghetto fabulous" (her phrase) in three-inch press-on nails and stiletto heels. (If you must know, he plays a divorced workaholic lawyer who’s finessing a critical client, and she plays a former prison inmate who wants legal help and won’t take no for an answer, turns his life upside down, almost costs him the critical client, etc., etc.)
"Everything he ever needed to know," blurbs the tagline, "she learned in prison." More accurately, everything he ever needed to know, she learned in the ghetto; the larger point is that she has everything to teach and nothing to learn, and he has everything to learn and nothing to teach.
It used to be that, in class-crossing movie romances, individuals from both sides of the tracks might be expected to each have something to learn from the other or to improve personally in some way through the relationship (cf. Pretty Woman, The African Queen, Sabrina, etc.). Bringing Down the House joins last year’s Life or Something Like It in assuming that, if one is well-dressed and professionally successful, it means one is a failure, whereas if one dresses down and has no particular career aspirations, it means one has self-esteem and balance in one’s life.
I feel a list coming on. Here are some other precepts in Bringing Down The House’s view of the world:
- White people are uptight, stuffy racists who can’t even say the word "hip" without sounding square.
- Especially older white men, who seem to be corporate executive types for the most part.
- But even more especially elderly white women — there are at least two here — who are fastidious dowagers who use words such as "Negro" and "fag," and are judgmental, miserable creatures who, if they ever smoked a roach, would be better human beings.
- Black people are sensual, anarchic free spirits who party, play loud music, dance, do drugs, speak in Ebonics, and don’t seem to work.
- I can’t tell you about older black people, because in this movie all black people are young and hip.
- Black people act the way they do because it’s natural and Who They Are.
- But white people don’t act the way they do because it’s natural and who they are. They do it because they’re repressed by oppressive social expectations.
- Therefore, white people can acquire authenticity only by rejecting the standards and expectations of white middle-class culture and identifying with the expressions and behavior of black culture.
- This comes easily to white teenagers, who naturally communicate in such phrases as "all up in that" and "trippin’ on E" — when they’re not trying to impress older white people by affecting to standard speech and pretending to be interested in topics like Queen Victoria.
- However, even an older, ostensibly conservative white person, such as Eugene Levy, can acquire authenticity through deadpan delivery of such dialogue as "She’s got it goin’ on" and "You got me straight trippin, Boo," though he will look silly doing it, in a cute sort of way, like a little kid playing dress-up.
- But if a black person, such as Queen Latifah, acts white, affecting to standard diction and white-collar taste, then that would only be to satirically send up the white-bread blandness and sterility of middle-class culture. Otherwise, it would be pointless.
Why are movies like Bringing Down the House and National Security so different from movies like Barbershop, Drumline, and Antwone Fisher? In a nutshell, these other pictures, all by black filmmakers, involve race, but are not about race. They’re about characters, individuals, who are as unique and varied as any characters in a typical film of their respective genres — sympathetic or unsympathetic, cool or conventional, young or old, smart or stupid, honest or criminal, open-minded or hidebound, boring or interesting.
By contrast, Bringing Down the House — which, like National Security, was written and directed by whites — is essentially about race conflict and culture clash. That in itself may not be inherently fatal, but in these films it reduces to bashing white culture and pandering to black culture, in a way that ultimately demeans everyone.
In reality, of course, there is no "black culture" or "white culture" per se. There are urban and suburban cultural milieus, but neither city nor suburb is the exclusive residence of one race. There is hip-hop culture, but even that isn’t monolithically black (e.g., the token white guy in Barbershop) — and, of course, many black people are as far removed from hip-hop as… well, as director Adam Shankman (A Walk to Remember) and first-time screenwriter Jason Filardi.
Shankman and Filardi do mock and abuse white people and suburban culture. They depict all whites as racists, hypocrites, and worse. They give Queen Latifah a chance to mock white stereotypes, and to kick the tar out of an uppity, kick-boxing white woman in one of the most sadistic brawls I’ve ever seen in a comedy (choreographed, I learn from the production notes, by stunt coordinator John Medlen, known for his work on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer").
But the depiction of blacks in this film is as stereotyped and ultimately racist as any I’ve seen, culminating in a climactic scene set in a menacing, urban neighborhood out of a suburban nightmare — a neighborhood in which "a white person is either a cop, a crackhead or a corpse," as a black character puts it.
In movies like this, black characters are defined by a single overwhelming trait: not being white. They may be proudly not white, defiantly not white, contemptuously not white, but ultimately they’re still defined in relation to whiteness, which is why Bringing Down the House maximizes cultural divides instead of bridging them.