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Bringing Down the House By: Eli Lehrer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 19, 2003


Bringing Down the House, which topped the American box office last weekend, is the most racist piece of trash released by a Hollywood studio since the 1950s, if not before. The movie, directed by Adam Shankman (who is white), depicts all of its Anglo characters as stupid, racist, and/or sexually obsessed.  The problem isn’t that the movie deals in stereo-types but that it actually demonstrates a seething hatred of every person in the script with white skin.

Bringing Down the House’s dreadful script (by first, and one hopes, last-time screenwriter Jason Filardi), starts with Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah) and Los Angles Lawyer Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) chatting on AOL Instant Messenger. Morton describes herself as a lawyer with long blonde tresses while the aging Sanderson implies that he’s a bit younger than his 50 years. Morton, of course, turns out to be, well, Queen Latifah: a big sassy black woman with a good brain, quick wit, and a “street” affect. She can speak like an Ivy League grad but it’s a point of pride that she won’t.

The plot quickly develops: Morton, a prison escapee who hasn’t gone to law school, says someone framed her for a robbery and wants Peter, a tax lawyer, to help. (How she accessed the Internet while in prison, and, for that matter, why Chicago’s landmark BP building has moved to Los Angles, are some of the many questions the film never answers.)  Peter won’t help and tries to kick him out of his house—so she proceeds to make his life hell until he agrees to help. In the meantime, she meets a motley crew of his white friends, associates, and clients.

The plot revolves around Peter’s efforts to win the business of the wealthy racist coffee heiress Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright). Arness, the script reveals, grew up on a tobacco plantation full of slaves who sang what she lightly calls “Negro spirituals.” (The movie is set in the present day and Plowright was born almost 70 years after the end of slavery. A very interesting movie could have been made about this 150 year old woman.) She begins to sing a rather incoherent ditty about slavery as soon as she sees Charlene. Meanwhile, Peter works on Charlene’s case and contemplates ways to win back a wife who divorced him over his workaholic ways. 

This all seems decent comic fodder, but Bringing Down the House’s characters (other than Charlene) prove so unsympathetic that no sane viewer would ever want them to win. Peter’s business associate Howie Rosenthal (Eugene Levy), stands out as one of the most unsubtle sexual stereotypes ever committed to celluloid.  He’s obsessed with Charlene’s breasts and, bizarrely, affects the lingo of a black gang member in order to woo her. Although one would think that he might use West Coast gangland slang rather than the East Coast variant he uses. But never mind. He drools all over Charlene who, for some reason, falls for his pathetic sexual obsession. There’s no evidence of chemistry, even slight, between the two and it, at best, she’s a savvy woman just using hapless Howie as a sex toy. 

Ashely (Misi Pyle), an acquaintance of Peters, appears just as demented: when a well-dressed Charlene walks into a country club, Ashley informs her, to her face that blacks should only be seen in the country club if they are waiting on tables. A few all white country clubs may still exist in the South but it seems unlikely that any persist in LA. Ashley later attacks Charlene out of racist spite. Charlene also gets stares at the all-white major law firm where Peter works. (I seriously wonder if there’s a single large law firm in the U.S. without at least one black associate.) She can only explain her presence by pretending to be a minister’s wife. When someone a neighbor sees Charlene on top of Peter in a moment of horseplay, he’s nearly fired from his job largely because his firm disapproves of inter-racial romance. For his part, Peter never seems attracted to Charlene even though she gets along with him better than Howie. He can do little but wake up, a little, to the idea that Charlene, might be a human.

The movie ends with a lackluster confrontation between a bizarrely dressed Sanderson and the thugish ex boyfriend who framed Charlene. (This black gangster thug might have balanced the anti-white sterotypes a tad but he spends less than 5 minutes on screen.)  For her part, Charlene ends up in Howie’s arms as the credits roll and, oh yeah, Mrs. Arrness gets stoned and signs up Peter and Howie as her lawyers. Whites can only do anything decent, Filardi seems to think, if they take lots of drugs.

Some recent light comedies—the Nutty Professor, Cool Runnings, Undercover Brother—do get comic mileage out of racial sterotypes. But such movies almost always true affection for the “victims” of the sterotypes in question. Viewers like the Jamaican Bobsled Team, the flatulent Klumps, and the Undercover Brother himself. In fact, the few good moments of Bringing Down the House come when Charlene cleverly mocks Peter’s anal retentive manners.  But the white characters in Bringing Down the House prove themselves utterly reprehensible in every way. Movies about hatred can sometimes make for good drama. But they make for dreadful comedy. And that’s exactly what Shankman and company have produced.


Eli Lehrer is a writer in Arlington, VA.


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