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Sending the Wrong Message

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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2008


They say that successful movie marketing is an art. If it is, it’s one of the blackest. Nothing against advertisers in general, or the creative individuals forced to turn turkey loaf into Thanksgiving, but creating buzz is a bifurcated saber. On the one hand, you have the easy sell, the material or individual with inherent pull and established popularity. All you have to do is say the name, suggest the situation, and potential revenue streams find their inner customer clicked over into “sold” mold. It’s the very definition of a no-brainer - the mindless, lemming like “Yes” to a Madison Avenue SOS.


But then there are the harder sells - the untested talent, the complicated project, the demographically indeterminate subset. For these amorphous entities, these hard to compartmentalize and conceptualize beings, no amount of Q rating returns or focus group grading can provide a window into its retail viability. For the copywriter or the art director, the minds paid to pull this unreasonable rabbit out of its wonderland-like hole, it’s all about the angle, the dirty back road in. If they can just find some path to the PR Promised Land, it’s another unexpectedly successful campaign and a key to the unisex Executive washroom.


So it’s clear that when faced with the prospect of selling Malcolm Lee’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins to a comedy weary (and wary) viewership, Universal’s crew was more than a little flummoxed. The upcoming comedy has a cast comprised of several recognizable and established actor/stand-ups (Martin Lawrence, Mo’Nique, Cedric the Entertainer), a complementary list of fine A-list names (James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, Michael Clarke Duncan), and a few scene-stealing surprises (Michael Epps) to flesh out its funny business. With a script that successfully balances the broadest of physical and shtick humor with lots of familial heart and insight, the studio must have sensed it had a winner on its hands.


But how to get that across to a public poised to hate almost anything that purports to make them laugh. After a decade of gross out gag fests, a combination of limp ideas and even lamer execution, anything without the name “Apatow” attached to it was seen as a risk. Add to that the clear ethnic angle and suddenly, you’re stuck. Between Tyler Perry’s “Go with God” restaged plays, and the formulaic African American anarchy which substitutes crudeness for something clever, the selling points were stuck between a social Scylla and Charybdis. So how did they resolve this dilemma? They didn’t. They took the incredibly easy way out and decided to position this film as a scatological slice of slapstick.


Frankly, nothing could be farther from the truth. In a year already overloaded with unexceptional fare, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a surprisingly rich and rewarding experience. Certainly, Mo’Nique and Cedric trade on the material that made them famous, and director Lee resorts to outrageous physical humor to drive some of his less important points, but at the oversized soul of this movie is a clear message about embracing who you are, forgiving people for the past, and learning to accept the love…and lesser qualities, of those you grew up with. Pointed, insightful, and slightly sloppy around the edges, it’s a wholly entertaining and enjoyable work.


Yet to watch the trailers, you’d think it was nothing but tawdry toilet humor, riotous roughhousing, and lots and lots of hard-R retorts. Of course, much of that comes directly from the comedians cast. All of the professional stand-ups present are notorious for their potty mouthed performances, and throughout the course of the film, several euphemisms and other expletive like comments are heard. But for every bit of blue humor, material one imagines resulted directly from the adlibbing tendencies present, Lee made sure to include a moment of clarity, a sequence where common sense takes the place of crudeness. And the pratfalls are saved for a couple of over the top sequences where our filmmaker lets the anarchy get out of hand. But it’s hardly the main point of the movie.


No, the marketers of Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins obviously believed that audiences - specifically viewers of color - were not sophisticated enough to embrace a full blown family comedy. Even the PG-13 rating reveals a limited use of the FCC’s favorite slang (the F-bomb gets dropped once). Like politicians who believe that pandering is the best way to tap into the electorate, Hollywood is convinced that certain racial profiling perfectly mirrors their merchandising. A slacker flick has to have indie rock and some petulant pop culture quips. A RomCom must retread some Tin Pan Alley classic and contain at least one shot of our stars making cow eyes at each other. And apparently, African Americans need sophistication spoon fed to them in vaudevillian like volleys of mugging.


Or maybe the motive is even more sinister. Maybe, in order to sell the film beyond those predetermined to see it, Tinsel Town takes the intolerant approach. While someone more scholarly and sophisticated will have to determine if the Roscoe Jenkins trailer is racist (instead of merely misguided), it is clear that to an audience unfamiliar with the work of those in the cast, stereotypes abound: the big mouthed black woman with shaving cream on her face; the fast talking hustler; the “white” acting prodigal; the various references to other culturally specific signposts. Like a visual reference guide to the experience about to be offered, the trailer takes a road no one should travel and traverses it with hamfisted foolishness. 


Again, the question is why? Why is the film being marketed this way? And again, what does that say about the intended audience on both sides of the social spectrum? If Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins wasn’t so obvious in the way it addresses its product, if the movie wasn’t so different than the non-character based chaos shown in the advertisement, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But Tootsie didn’t trade exclusively on its man in drag dimension, and Knocked Up acknowledged that there was more to its scatological tirades than farts and frat boyishness.


Yet somehow, when the skin tone shifts, so does the subjectivity. Instead, everything gets processed through a veiled worldview that’s long stopped representing the community at large. There is true diversity in the African American community, an element that Malcolm Lee’s movie clearly embraces. Too bad the rest of the entertainment arena can’t see it. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is indeed a good movie. Perhaps it’s time Hollywood relied on truth, instead of trickery, to enlighten its customers. Imagine how novel that would be.

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