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Social Studies

Murphy's Choice

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/2/2008

Let me be perfectly clear: I don't expect much from Meet Dave. Eddie Murphy is a comedic genius and a box-office legend but his film career, when looked at in totality, is a little dicey. For every Beverly Hills Cop or Nutty Professor, there's one or two films like Haunted Mansion and The Holy Man. Still, I'm happy that Murphy has made a film like Meet Dave, a story about a group of miniature aliens who come to Earth in a spaceship shaped like their captain, because it offers me hope that there's still room for a high-concept black film. I've always loved films that presented African-Americans in unique situations.

Y'know, people give `70s black cinema a lot of shit, but for all the complaining about the pimp movies, there was a fair amount of variety that came out during the decade. There were spy movies like Cleopatra Jones and karate movies like Black Belt Jones and political satire like The Watermelon Man. And, as much as it's become a punch line, even something like Blacula had a much more complicated plot than the "Dracula in black face" reputation it has. The great thing about the so-called blaxploitation period was that, with the sheer amount of films that were made, there was room for variety.

Of course, it couldn't last. As the `80s hit, that number dried up and so did the variety. Besides some moments, here and there, the cinematic images were few and far between, even with Spike Lee's efforts. Then, in '91, John Singleton released Boyz n the Hood, a couple of years later the Hughes Brothers made Menace II Society, and, bam, gangsterpalooza. For the next six years, we saw every combination of gangbanger/ drug dealer image you could imagine. And, in a backlash, there was the rise of what I called the Good Black Folks movie. As much as I have a level of affection for movies like The Best Man and Love Jones, the barely hidden subtext of all these carefully crafted depictions of nice, college-educated, successful black folks was, "See, we're not all like them damn hoodlums."

The irony is that, when it comes to varied and complicated depictions, the Good Black Folks movie is really no different than the `hood movies they reacted to. Very rarely did any of the `hood movies move beyond reductive and stereotypical images and examine the root causes of the characters and their motivations, but neither did their more genteel counterparts. Morris Chestnut was always wearing a suit and saying he was a lawyer but we never really saw him, uh, lawyering. And even though the Good Black Folks movie has metamorphisized from depictions of the young, good-looking, and successful to depictions of the rural matriarchal family, those same cardboard images are still around. I will keep saying it until I'm blue in the face: An actual old black woman from the South is a million times more complex than the ones that have graced the big screen over the past decade.

Within that context, Murphy has made some fascinating stuff. Film nerds fawn over 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, and his concert films, but my favorite Eddie Murphy films are Coming to America, Harlem Nights, and Boomerang. Just think about the plots to each. One is about the crown prince of a fictional African nation searching for a bride, one is a period piece depicting the challenges of Prohibition-era crime family, and one is a classic comeuppance tale. And, to reference Chestnut's lawyer dress-up game, Boomerang's advertising firm setting is a vibrant, integral part of the plot rather than just some generic backdrop which gives the film permission to put black people in nice clothes.

Those are my favorites, but the actor has a resume filled with extraordinary black images. Questionable quality aside, Eddie Murphy has made films where he's played a vampire, a congressman, a monk, a futuristic adventurer, a hostage negotiator, and a spy. Hell, it seems like money in the bank now, but really think about how The Nutty Professor pitch must have sounded: a remake of Jerry Lewis' classic comedy that featured a fairly dark depiction of Lewis' own id with the main actor playing four characters, including the lead role, in a prosthesis. Not exactly a cookie-cutter idea.

I understand that the last film Murphy made was the truly odious Norbit. And I don't care how much money the Shrek films make, Murphy's donkey character is the cinematic equivalent of fingernails screeching on a chalkboard while popping gum in your ear. Still, there's something about that poster for Meet Dave with the image of a little Eddie Murphy coming out of the head of a big Eddie Murphy that pulls me in. And that's because I've never seen it before. H

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