Once upon a time in Hollywood, theaters were losing their audiences to the new fangled invention known as color television. Once the dominate force in entertainment, theaters now found themselves losing money and desperate to win back customers who had started to watch more and more television instead of purchasing movie tickets.
New techniques such as Cinemascope were developed to draw crowds back to the theater, but the high cost of producing films in this format severely limited the number of movies that would be shown in the new format. Desperate to stem the tide of lost revenues, Hollywood stumbled upon a new film genre that started a film revolution and in many ways, saved many Hollywood studios when they were sinking fast. The time was the late 60’s and early 70’s and in a bold move for the time, Hollywood took a chance on some low-budget films that featured black actors, directors, and music, and contained lead characters and themes for the growing urban theater audiences. The first film to hit big, was “Watermelon Man”, a film made for a paltry $30,000 that went on to return well over a million dollars in ticket sales.
Quick to jump on a hot trend, studious churned out such classics as “Sweet Sweetbacks Badass Song”, “Coffey”, “Blackula”, and the all time classics “Superfly” and “Shaft”. The films proved to be hits with audiences off all races and Blaxploitation films as they became known ruled the early part of the 70’s despite criticism that they portrayed negative images and stereotypes of urban life and were filled with far too much sex, drugs, violence and vulgarity. In spite of the criticism, over 200 Blaxploitation films were made from 1971-1974 and paved the way for many of today’s Black filmmakers including Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, and John Singleton. Once Hollywood had begun to rebound from the huge profits generated by the Blaxploitation era, they began to shift their attention towards more mainstream fare. Audiences that first flocked to the new style of films began to see that they were being exploited by Hollywood and fled from the cinemas in droves. Despite the short-lived era of Blaxploitation, many of the films and stars of the era have gone on to classic and cult status in the hallowed halls of cinema history.
Flash forward to 2002, where a so-called “Urban” film now has a diverse meaning. There are witty comedies; social commentaries, gang films and romance films just as there are in mainstream cinema. Early Blaxploitation filmmakers had dreamed of being able to make films that would be judged the same way that foreign, art, and mainstream films were, and slowly, but surely it has been happening.
In the new film “Undercover Brother”, “The Man” has devised a devious plot to keep a Black candidate from the White House with the dastardly Operation Whitewash. In order to stop “The Man” and his sinister network, Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), and the team at the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. must go all out to save the day and ensure equality for all the people of America regardless of race and gender. Clad in stylish polyester, and sporting an afro that would make Angela Davis green with envy, Undercover Brother is style personified; that is in his own mind as despite living in modern times, U.B. seems to have a hard time figuring out that the 70’s are long gone and his gas guzzling Cadillac with the blaring 8-track is not the hip look that he thinks it is. Assisting U.B. is Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle), and Lance (Neil Patrick Harris) and they are as diverse a group as they are funny, especially Lance who is only in the group due to Affirmative Action, and sings along badly to music that makes his fellow employees skin crawl.
The foes lined up against U.B. and staff is formidable as Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan) and She-Devil (Denise Richards), as “The Mans” top officers. The plot is very basic, but the laughs are constant, what could have easily become a one joke premise never gets old as a number of 70’s and modern day stereotypes are ribbed mercilessly without being mean spirited or degrading. Griffin and the cast are fantastic in their roles, as they know it is a parody and play along in good spirit. Seeing Neal Patrick Harris go postal on a group of bad guys is almost worth the price of a ticket alone as is the great work by Kattan who proved that with the right material, can be a comedic talent on the big screen. I do not wish to give away any of the films great jokes, but suffice it to say, I laughed heartily from start to finish as did the audience. Lets hope that audiences will be seeing more of Undercover Brother in the future, as I was certainly glad that he was on the case.
4 stars out of 5