Few would debate the fact that before the civil rights and women's liberation movements percolated into mass culture, representations of black/white relationships in popular media, particularly Hollywood, were thoroughly unbalanced. Viewed in retrospect, seemingly amicable duos like Uncle Tom and Eva, Scarlett O'Hara and Mammy, and Shirley Temple and Bill Bojangles make us cringe with the obviousness of the black character's one-way caregiving role. The minstrelization of African-Americans—alternately portrayed as countrified nurturers or urban entertainers—reveals the extent of their oppression in Hollywood. But a look at contemporary film exposes the perhaps more troubling fact that little has changed, and nowhere does this become clearer than in narratives that take on the societal ramifications of interracial romance.
While Hollywood has always flirted with the frisson of miscegenation (1930's Motion Picture Production Code explicitly forbade it, a ban not officially lifted until the mid-1950s), it wasn't until the '60s and '70s that films seriously tackling the complexities of interracial relationships took their first tentative steps forward: The Sidney Poitier dramas A Patch of Blue (1965) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) are the most famous examples.
And then came 1975's Mandingo. Shocking audiences with its lurid, if somewhat cynical, portrayal of the star-crossed love affair between a white man, Hammond, and his black slave, Ellen, Mandingo stands as the quintessential racy race film. The film's flamboyance sometimes verges on camp: Hammond is cursed with a gimpy leg, an obvious symbol for impotence that sets him in even starker contrast to his hypervirile slave Mede. Mede stands in for Hammond's displaced masculinity, not only becoming a top fighter in plantation wrestling matches but also sleeping with Hammond's wife, Blanche. Campiness notwithstanding, though, Mandingo sought to challenge our entrenched conceptions of race and power by presenting consensual—and romantic—sex between master and slave.Hollywood has revisited the Mandingo taboo over the past decade or so, and has also sought far more thoughtful and normalized representations of interracial relationships, from the edgy drama of 1992's Zebrahead to the Afterschool Special–style schlock of Save the Last Dance and the self-referential punch lines of Cruel Intentions. (In the last, an irate matron screeches to her daughter's black cello teacher, "I got you off the streets!," to which he replies with bewilderment that he lives on Park Avenue.) Yet Hollywood still can't seem to slake its thirst for the broadest of characterizations when it comes to interracial pairings, and this year's Queen Latifah/Steve Martin hit Bringing Down the House provides ample evidence that a film's racial awareness has nothing to do with its racial sensitivity.
The plot goes something like this: Framed for a bank robbery, brassy Charlene (Latifah) meets a recently—and unhappily—divorced tax attorney, Peter (Martin), in an Internet chat room. Letting him believe she's a lawyer, too, Charlene sets up a rendezvous at his home. Her real goal is to clear the bogus charges, but because Charlene is presented from the start as a sponger who needles and harasses Peter into helping her, the film doesn't let us believe wholeheartedly in her innocence.
Then again, that may not be the point. As the two haracters get to know one another, Peter begins to look at Charlene as a potential companion. After all, he stands to gain a lot from the relationship: Charlene belongs to a tradition of with-it black characters who gamely provide spiritual counsel to floundering white souls. She poses as the family's nanny, ostensibly so that Peter won't horrify and alienate his wealthiest client, racist heiress Mrs. Arness, with the implication that he and Charlene are friends, much less potential lovers. Their relationship is symbiotic, but unbalanced. He takes her into his home and agrees to work on her case, while she nurtures his kids and advises him on how to win back his ex-wife, Kate (Jean Smart).
By having Charlene irreverently parody the archetypal mammy, Bringing Down the House presents itself as a spoof of racism and racist films. But the film fails as a satire because it's plenty racist on its own. As Charlene settles into the mammy role, BDTH simply becomes an example of the kind of film it's supposed to be skewering.
It appears that the bigwigs at Disney were aware of the script's racist potential, or at least eager to hedge their bets. And it's easy to imagine that studio execs were attempting to inoculate themselves against inevitable criticism when they enlisted Queen Latifah as executive producer. As she told the Boston Globe in March 2003, "The studio felt the script needed not just a black voice, but because it was so racy and edgy, it also needed someone who could develop a different take on the characters." Until recently, Latifah was best known as an mc who once topped charts with lyrics like "I'm not your personal whore/ That's not what I'm here for." She also established herself in proud-black-woman roles like Kadijah James in Fox's gal-pal sitcom Living Single and Cleo on 1996's heist drama Set It Off. Had Charlene been played by an unknown actor, far fewer of us would have given the film's premise enough of the benefit of the doubt to make it to the theater.
Which is not to say that Latifah's behind-the-scenes role is a mere marketing ploy. But to assume that simply having her in an executive position makes Bringing Down the House not racist would be naive. The timing of the movie's release is noteworthy: After effectively crossing over to mainstream Hollywood with a race-blind role in the Oscar- winning Chicago, Latifah in Bringing Down the House charges straight back to the mammy genre of the past. In playing a character who burdens herself with shoring up a white man's sexual insecurity, teaching his son to read and his daughter to be careful whom she runs with, and cooking soul food for a wealthy bigot who responds with crass racial slurs, the erstwhile mc seems to have forgotten her hip history. In his Chicago Sun-Times column on March 7, Roger Ebert suggested that Latifah perhaps wanted to make a point: "Rich White Lawyer Had Better Learn to Accept This Bitch on Her Own Terms Instead of Merely Caving In to Her Sex Appeal" [sic]. The other logical explanation—aside from BDTH's blockbuster potential—is that the film's "We're spoofing racism, not reproducing it!" posturing really does have us all duped, Queen Latifah included.
It becomes even more obvious that BDTH is resurrecting old race stereotypes when compared to another Steve Martin comedy with a similar plot, 1992's Housesitter. Here, Martin plays the same stuffy-but-benevolent white guy whose ex-fiancé is frumpy and cold—not quite a harridan, but not a keeper, either—and Goldie Hawn plays Gwyn, a low-class vagabond with a heart of gold. Gwyn's role, in contrast to that of Charlene, is not to help the man get his ex back but to make him realize that he deserves better. Though both films depend on the chemistry between the pairs, Martin and Hawn end up together, whereas Martin and Latifah do not. Though Bringing Down the House is initially set up as a romance between Charlene and Peter, it becomes clear as the movie progresses that love would blossom only if Charlene were white. To save face, the movie sets up another, more comical, white guy, Howie (Eugene Levy), as Charlene's potential love interest. This pairing is one of the more ludicrous elements of the film, as Howie tries to win Charlene over with lines like "You got me straight trippin'‚ boo." Charlene seems mildly flattered and thoroughly amused by these overtures, and though the closing scene finds them snuggling happily, she and Howie suffer an obvious dearth of chemistry.
That said, the film's pivotal—though highly sublimated—love scene occurs between Charlene and Peter at a swank nightclub. As a live band cranks the place up with Kelly Price's "Ain't Nobody," Charlene, in a low-cut black dress, goads Peter onto the dance floor to coach him in the art of freaking. As he gets into the spirit of the hip gyrating and ass shimmying, the camera pans up to the restaurant balcony, where, conveniently enough, Kate sits with her sister Ashley. Observing Peter and Charlene, Kate clucks, "He'd never dance with me like that!" The upstairs/downstairs symbolism in this scene is used consistently throughout the film. Where Charlene personifies the aggressive, freaky music that signifies sexuality in BDTH, Kate looks tastefully bland by comparison, sporting all the accoutrements of modern gentility—cell phone, car, neutral clothing. She's as colorless as Charlene is, well, colored.
But for all the electricity between Charlene and Peter, she is more a barometer for his sexual fantasy than a true love interest. This becomes evident in the next scene, in which their ambivalent dance-floor romance is rendered into a burlesque sex act back at Peter's. Charlene puts on a Barry White record and continues to coach Peter in seducing Kate; she encourages Peter to grab her breasts as though they belonged to his ex-wife. He goes on to stuff his crotch with two prickly tennis balls, and they tumble onto the couch together in giggles. Naturally, Peter's dowdy next-door neighbor Mrs. Klein walks into the room to discover the two of them play-humping and gasps, "Mandingo!" in predictable knee-jerk fashion.
This kind of blatant self-referencing is the film's way of getting itself off the hook—trying to make clear that, though it may promote old stereotypes, it does so with a self-conscious gaze. Having an ostensibly racist character pass judgment on Peter and Charlene seems to exonerate them for capitulating to the retrograde roles of master and Jezebel. This winking backward glance to an inarguably racist representation of interracial romance seeks to assure us that Bringing Down the House is, after all, just a spoof.
In fact, Mandingo references are a kind of modus operandi for Bringing Down the House. Ashley, the film's bratty belle, is set up as a modern-day Blanche. Seeing Charlene at a country club, for example, Ashley snottily asks her for a martini, as though a black woman would be there only in the capacity of waitress. And we're inclined to cheer Charlene on when she later follows Ashley into the club bathroom, muttering, "I'm gonna kick the bulimia out of you, bitch." The resulting kickboxing match vaguely recalls the scene in Mandingo when Blanche calls Ellen into her bedroom and beats her with a switch. BDTH's fight is far more fair, but the characters' cartoonish kung-fu moves drain the scene of seriousness. In the end, when Ashley is bruised, knocked out, and swinging from a hook on the wall, we're left cheering for Charlene, as though her physical victory over Ashley constituted a kind of ritual sacrifice of the racist Blanche archetype.
But what BDTH fails to acknowledge is that the scene in Mandingo isn't a mere catfight. Rather, it suggests that the white woman is targeting the black woman because she can't see that they're both victims within a larger system of power. In fact, Blanche isn't supposed to be an archetypal villain at all. (By the end of the film, when her husband poisons her for giving birth to a biracial love child, she's transformed into a sympathetic character.) By trying to mirror, and then resolve, Blanche and Ellen's complex rivalry in a single over-the-top showdown, BDTH misses the point completely.
Granted, Bringing Down the House uses hyperbole in a way that suggests it couldn't possibly be taking itself seriously. With the possible exception of Peter and Charlene, all the movie's characters are firmly two-dimensional, and those intentionally coded as racist are over-the-top caricatures: Mrs. Klein is an anachronism culled from some pristine '50s suburb; Ashley is an abominable drama queen who milks geriatrics for their money; and Mrs. Arness is a frumpy, plantation-reared matron who, while dining at Peter's house, cluelessly (if earnestly) sings a mock "spiritual" featuring the lyric "Massa gon' sell us tomorrow." The film keeps us rooting for Peter and Charlene by setting them against these stark, cartoonish villains, as though by demonizing the allegorical racists, the film itself is also denouncing racism. These scenes function to give Bringing Down the House a political pass, encouraging viewers to substitute their own politics for the actual politics of the film.
As always, though, Hollywood doth protest too much. As a spoof, Bringing Down the House fails to convince, as the moments of marked irreverence don't carry throughout. To a great extent, the film regurgitates old allegories in order to simplify larger issues of race and power. Charlene provides ideological justification for the idea that black folks are there to help white folks get in touch with their authentic selves, whether it's in the realm of sexuality, spirituality, or—in Peter's case—just being a funky guy and a good father.
While it's worth arguing that Queen Latifah's role in producing the film marks a pivotal achievement for black women, it also shows that having a woman of color involved in the process won't necessarily change the underlying assumptions of the eventual product, nor the way it will be interpreted. With Bringing Down the House, she reveals the ideological contours of black women's oppression in Hollywood. The lesson may be that success comes fastest when you join the forces that make those who don't fit Hollywood's restricted romantic-heroine mold feel shitty—but we'd rather be taught something we don't already know.