Raising a fist for the solid ‘Undercover Brother’

Earlier this month, John Ridley won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, celebrating his work on 12 Years a Slave (which also won Best Picture). During his acceptance speech, I was kind of hoping that Ridley would make some acknowledgement, any sort of nod toward a movie he wrote 12 years ago: Undercover Brother.

I realize that was hoping for too much. After winning the highest honor a screenwriter can earn in Hollywood, writing a powerful film about slavery, one man’s story of having his life taken away from him and enduring humiliation and suffering under the worst conditions, depicting a dark, shameful period in American history, Ridley had far more important concerns. He obviously had to fulfill the dignity of the moment. The film deserved that. So did Ridley’s career achievement; he was only the second African-American to win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

So the stage of the Dolby Theatre — with his peers, the most glamorous and powerful in Hollywood looking on, along with millions watching on television — probably wasn’t the best place for Ridley to quote some funk lyrics, hold up a fist and say, “Solid,” like the hero of the 2002 film (and earlier internet animated series) he wrote. Although “Solid” would’ve been a great sign-off for his speech. It’s just one word! It would’ve been harmless. And funny!

If you haven’t seen Undercover Brother, it’s basically Ridley’s tribute to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s with big afros, bigger cars, leather suits, bell-bottom pants and high-flying martial arts action. At worst, the movie comes off as a black version of the Austin Powers franchise (something that Ridley didn’t have in mind, but appears to have developed in rewrites). At best, however, Undercover Brother is an entertaining parody loaded with clever social commentary and spoofs of the differences between white and black culture.

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Perhaps the best example of this is the exaggeration of white people’s love for mayonnaise. Joining forces with the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to battle “The Man,” mastermind of the conspiracy to keep black people and culture down in our society, Undercover Brother has to infiltrate a cigarette company belonging to the megalomaniac’s corporate empire. Part of his training to blend into a white corporate environment means eating what white people eat.

As Smart Brother (this movie’s version of James Bond’s gadgetmaster Q) says to Undercover Brother, “If you’re going to fit in to white America, you’re gonna have to learn to like mayonnaise!” Of course, the condiment is slathered on to turkey sandwiches in disgusting amounts, oozing out between the layers of bread and meat. But to counteract this and help his agent fit in, Smart Brother designs a watch that can squirt “a rather liberal spritzing” of hot sauce onto any food and make it more palatable.

The film does show its age a bit, with Eddie Griffin as the lead and Chris Kattan as the main villain. When was the last time you saw Griffin in anything of note? And for Kattan, this was toward the end of his run on Saturday Night Live, when he was hoping to transition to a career in movies. This is also when Denise Richards was kind of a thing.

However, the most dated aspect of Undercover Brother is its main plotline, which follows an African-American general — played by Billy Dee Williams — that plans to run for president and the villainous scheme to prevent him from becoming America’s first black chief executive in the White House. (As The Man says, “We have to keep the White House white!”)

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Obviously, that concept has been outdated for almost 10 years now. But The Man’s use of a mind-control drug to take over General Boutwell and get him to open a chain of fried chicken franchises — fulfilling one of the worst stereotypes about black people — rather than run for president still holds up pretty well. The chicken itself also plays a key role in The Man’s attempt to wipe out black culture.

Other standouts in the cast include Dave Chappelle as Conspiracy Brother, the skeptical agent who has all kinds of theories on how white people have tried to keep black people down for decades (“The NBA really did institute the three point shot to give white boys a chance!”) and is all too willing to share them. He delivers most of the film’s devious social commentary and brings a comedic energy to all of his scenes. It’s a chance to enjoy some pre-Chappelle’s Show Chappelle and appreciate what he could do with a relatively small role.

Someone who I thought might become a star had Undercover Brother been a hit was Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Sistah Girl, B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D’s top agent and the love interest for our hero. Ellis mostly plays the straight man, providing a look of disbelief or disdain when her colleagues say something racist or sexist. But she’s also believable in action scenes, not a skinny model type who can barely hold up a gun or struggle to punch through a piece of paper. Of course, Ellis is also very believable as someone Undercover Brother would fall in love with.

This probably speaks to the lack of good roles for African-American actresses in Hollywood, something that warrants an entire post on its own. But after watching Undercover Brother, I thought I’d be seeing more of Ellis in plenty of movies to come. She’s had supporting roles in Ray and The Help, and has made appearances on several TV shows over the past 12 years, including True Blood, NCIS: Los Angeles and The Mentalist, but never seemed to find that one role that could launch her into stardom.

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But ultimately, Undercover Brother is Ridley’s baby and a testament to his creativity as a writer. Malcolm D. Lee was the director, and perhaps he was responsible for the similarity in tone to the Austin Powers films. Had Ridley directed the film, maybe more of his original vision — something closer to what was seen in the internet animated series (which is frustratingly difficult to find online) — would’ve made it to the big screen. I don’t know if he even wanted to direct the movie, but had no experience in that role then. And the studio (Universal) surely wanted something closer to what had already worked with audiences.

I’ve been a tremendous admirer of Ridley for years. Writing the script for Three Kings was enough to earn my adulation. But my favorite writers tend to be the one who work in several different mediums. Ridley has been a stand-up comedian, authored several novels (Stray Dogs was turned into the film U-Turn) and comic books, worked on TV comedies and dramas (including a producer role on Third Watch), and written political commentary for publications like Esquire, the Huffington Post and his own website, That Minority Thing. He was even supposed to be a co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe when the show was originally created, but eventually had to bow out because of his film and TV work.

Ridley has certainly moved on to bigger and better things. Winning an Academy Award should create the opportunity for him to do just about whatever he wants. (He already has a Jimi Hendrix biopic — which he wrote and directed — on the way.) I’d love to see him revisit Undercover Brother and make the film he envisioned, with a new cast and story. But compared to whatever Ridley does in the future, a blaxploitation parody is probably a trifle. It’s one hell of a fun trifle, though.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and Asheville's Mountain XPress. He's written for Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.

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