For filmmakers Malcolm D. Lee and John Ridley, it's all about mayonnaise. White people love it; they smear chubby, jiggling gobs of it on their turkey sandwiches. Black people hate it; it is the dreaded flavor killer, which can only be tempered by a violent squirt of hot sauce. Mayonnaise is, in these filmmakers' eyes, the great racial litmus test.
And, oddly enough, that is the genius lining the fringe of Undercover Brother, the hilarious parody of racism passing itself off as an action comedy. Director Lee and screenwriter Ridley splatter countless stereotypes (black and white) up against a canvas of racial tension and dare their audience to make sense of it. And laugh.
After all, do whites really love mayonnaise, and do blacks really hate it? To even enter the debate is to fall right into their trap. It's ridiculous. It's benign. It's unnecessary. And that may be the point. In taking something as silly as mayonnaise, and just about every other stereotype imaginable, Lee and Ridley have fashioned that rarity: a cinematic comedy about racism in America, flying in the face of political correctness.
It's been 15 years since Hollywood Shuffle. Have things gotten so bad that we can't even laugh about it anymore? In their equal-opportunity approach to lampooning and trivializing our racial and cultural cliches, Lee (The Best Man) and Ridley (Three Kings) have crafted a movie that allows us all, together in the same darkened theater, a chance to laugh at ourselves.
Lee adapted Undercover Brother from Ridley's made-for-Internet stories about an America where undercover group The Man seeks to keep the black man down -- against the equally underground efforts of the afrocentric B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. Bumbling his way through this well-orchestrated war is freelancing avenger Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin). This brother inexplicably looks like he stepped out of a '70s blaxploitation flick in his Technicolor-coordinated leather ensemble, his geometrically intense sideburns and his Dr. J 'fro flapping in the breeze as he cruises around in his gold Cadillac convertible with fuzzy 8-balls strung to his rear-view mirror. He's Austin Powers as Shaft's younger brother: fearless, a little bit suave and a little bit dense. (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me co-writer Michael McCullers helped Ridley with this script.)
The members of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. serve as the counterpoint to Undercover Brother. They're all stock, self-explanatory characters by design: the gruff, demanding Chief (Boston Public's Chi McBride); Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), whom Brother instantly tries to seduce; and their Affirmative Action-hire intern, Lance (Neil Patrick Harris, never whiter). In one of the film's best scenes, the group members explain their mission to the ditzy Brother. When he realizes The Man's efforts to keep the black man down, the Brother sees the light in an exchange that goes something like this:
"So you mean the NBA really did put in the 3-point shot to give white players a chance?
"And Hollywood really is out to get black people?"
"And O.J. Simpson really didn't do it after all?"
"Well ... ."
The Brother joins forces with the 'H.O.O.D. just in time for their latest mission. Retiring Army Gen. Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams) -- a dead ringer for Colin Powell who "is so well-spoken!," gushes one news anchor -- is on his way to a run for the presidency. Instead, he stuns the nation by announcing the opening of a fried-chicken franchise. (Its featured deal: the Nappy Meal, a bucket of chicken with a 32-oz. bottle of malt liquor.) You see, Gen. Boutwell is the latest in a series of brainwashing schemes concocted by The Man.
The Brother's mission is to infiltrate The Man's front organization, Multi-National Inc., but first he must undergo a deprogramming of his blackness so he can "pass" in white corporate culture. The Man easily spots the intruder, and dispatches "black man's kryptonite" in the form of Penelope Snow, aka She-Devil (Denise Richards), who seduces our hapless brother with her Aryan good looks and passion for mayo. Needless to say, this ticks off Sistah Girl, and their culminating battle, leading to a hilariously gratuitous lesbian-friendly shower scene, plays on so many cliches it's hard to keep track.
So the battle is engaged, and the Brother must also battle The Man's chief lieutenant, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), whose own inner struggle means fending off the black culture that is constantly trying to give him a little rhythm. Kattan's one of the film's surprising disappointments, reduced to mugging that works in an SNL skit but barely elicits chuckles here. His climactic fight with Brother, to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," almost makes up for it.
Undercover Brother also features tons of the expected funk classics, almost to the point of exhaustion, but maybe that's the point. I'm not really sure, because Lee and Riley have a hard time keeping anything in check. That they don't know when to lay off the silliness and craft a smoother film is a niggling criticism, for their main thrust hits home: a house divided by mayonnaise cannot stand.
- Mixed up: She-Devil (Denise Richards), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) and Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) join forces in the racial parody/action comedy Undercover Brother.