Down the House
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Now playing at movie theaters everywhere, and topping the box
office, Bringing Down the House is directed by Adam Shankman (who
also did The Wedding Planner). The leads in this slapstick comedy
about race are Steve Martin as Peter Sanderson and Queen Latifah
as Charlene Morton.
Now, I warn you, I really dislike the genre of comedy that has
Steve Martin in it, and this is exactly that kind of movie, except
for the fact that it's about race and that Queen Latifah both
acts in it and co-produced it. I will see anything with Queen
Latifah in it, and it's always worth it to try to understand how
America's coping these days with one of its favorite obsessions.
Clearly, it's not. Black people, according to this movie, rob
banks, are tough gangsters, like to party, love to dance, speak
an exotic vernacular and are cool. Black women are on this earth
to facilitate and manage the emotional lives of awkward and harried
white men (they are also there to cook, sew, and take care of
the kids). White women and Black women hate each other because
they are both competing for the white man's attention.
Now, you ask me-why should you bother? Well, you probably shouldn't,
except that there really are several fine actors in this film,
in addition to Martin and Queen Latifah. Joan Plowright plays
a wealthy and bigoted client of Sanderson's tax law firm; Eugene
Levy plays Sanderson's co-worker and buddy, while Jean Smart plays
his ex. Steve Harris from The Practice plays Widow, Queen Latifah's
Some of the humor is pretty good too. But what's best about the
movie, what is clearly its driving force, and why they had to
cast Queen Latifah, is its enchantment with language. The set-up
for this is predictably obnoxious: earthy Charlene teaches white
uptight tax lawyer Peter how to get by in the vernacular. His
co-worker however-because Jewish apparently-both relishes the
racial difference (he's got jungle fever) and somehow magically
speaks the language, albeit with his own odd and awkward inflections.
But the dialogue, repartee, the words and phrases themselves,
are great, and Queen Latifah's gorgeous voice and perfect timing
make language come alive and sing. My favorite part is where she
imitates white talk, what gets called standard English, showing
off for her audience just how versatile a range she commands.
Oh by the way, the story is this: Charlene is wrongly convicted
of armed robbery and breaks out of prison. Having conducted an
online courtship with Peter Sanderson, who is currently estranged
from his wife, she shows up at his house ostensibly for a date
but actually to get help on her case. He is, of course, one of
those mild-mannered white bigots and tries to get rid of her before
his more virulently racist neighbors notice what's going on. As
the plot unfolds, he learns with her help how to place family
values above work, win back his wife, have fun, and how not to
be a racist. Charlene meanwhile learns how not to make foolish
mistakes like choosing the wrong man. She also gets the material
help she needs, which is probably the movie's ultimate message:
what women, white or Black, need from men, is money and means.
But only good women deserve it. To the movie's credit, the white
family does not transform Charlene; rather, she already understands
all their foolish mistakes and racist stumbling. Nothing surprises
her and she emerges intact, unscathed, and true. But then again,
that's a stereotype too.
Bringing Down the House is yet another movie about white people
using Black people in their desperate attempts to acquire authenticity.
Further, in forging one particular interracial alliance, the film
must destroy others, including those of race and gender. The connections
between Black women and Black men, and the connections between
Black women and white women must be trashed in order for white
men and Black women to emerge as models of interracial harmony.
And perhaps in subtle-too subtle-self-criticism, the movie suggests
that this is the way it has to be for white men ever to appear
Is this a comedy? If you think about it, and about the popularity
of this film, it kind of makes you want to cry. What were they
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang,
this is Carla Freccero.