Say “pootie tang” once. Funny? Now say it twenty-five times. Still funny? I happen to think so. And Pootie Tang, the movie written and directed by Louis C.K., produced by Chris Rock, starring what appears to be The Chris Rock Show‘s entire writing staff, and spun off from a sketch written for the show, is more than just a one-joke exercise. Unlike the Saturday Night Live movie-making machine, which spins feature-length comedies from sketches that can barely hold together for ten minutes, Pootie Tang holds the attention as much as any music video or comic book, except when it tries too hard to be a movie. It manages to do so in part because it resembles a music video or comic book, in its visual design and (lack of) plot development, and in part because it boldly features Pootie Tang, a black superhero/pop star who speaks a wacked-out ebonics all his own. The result is a 21st-century blaxploitation film shrink-wrapped in a colorful plastic sheen of irony.
Lance Crouthier stars as the titular hero, ladies man, and role model for the kids. Pootie Tang, whose singular dialect consists of phrases like “sepatown” and “wa-da-tow,” is introduced during an interview with Bob Costas, showing a clip from his new movie, Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine. The clip turns out to be Pootie Tang . . . or is it really a clip and the Costas interview the movie? We’re through the looking glass—or the cinema screen, or the TV screen—and into the movie. It becomes a Mobeius strip of pop culture references, premised on an in-in-joke that people who watch both Chris Rock and Bob Costas will get. Such inter-television-ality abounds in Pootie Tang. The creative team behind The Chris Rock Show makes up the core cast, and the film includes appearances by Conan O’Brien and his former sidekick Andy Richter. Robert Vaughn, former star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., plays the villain, and Laura Kightlinger of Saturday Night Live appears as a newscaster. The strategy of creating a TV universe for the movie, which actually takes place on television as a video clip for the Bob Costas show, is as effective as Lewis Carroll’s or Stan Lee’s framing techniques, introducing an absurd social framework where good is innocent and evil megalomaniacal.
Chris Rock, Lance Crouthier, Jennifer Coolidge, Robert Vaughn, JB Schmoove, Wanda Sykes, Reg E. Cathey, Cathy Trien, David Attel, Andy Richter
(Chris Rock Productions)
The primary purveyor of “good” in Pootie Tang is, of course, the manchild Pootie. In the beginning of Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine, Pootie grows up with the stern Daddy Tang (Chris Rock),who wields his belt with laser precision, whipping it snakelike, or like Indiana Jones kills a rat or Buffalo Bill ropes a steer. The belt even has the power to find Pootie, wherever he may be, and knock an apple from his hand before he applies a five-finger-discount. Daddy Tang bequeaths the belt to young Pootie before dying of wounds suffered when he is suddenly and inexplicably attacked by a guy in a gorilla suit. A guy in a gorilla suit? Is this simply a goofy gag, or does this guy serve another function? Since 1933’s King Kong (actually a stop-motion effect gorilla), the gorilla in Hollywood films, and the ape in general (Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), has typically functioned as a symbol of white insecurity about “darkest” Africa, and therefore, Africans. That this trope of a gorilla lumbers onscreen out of nowhere and kills the hard-working African American Daddy Tang is one instance of Pootie Tang‘s repeated use of potent racist stereotypes, as well as symbols of troubled black masculinity and U.S. exploitation and inequality.
For example, Dick Lecter (Vaughn), CEO of Lectercorp and grown-up Pootie Tang’s arch nemesis, embodies such exploitation and inequality as corporate greed. Lectercorp manufactures, distributes, and markets cigarettes, alcohol, fast food, and narcotics. Lecter foists these consumables onto the inner city through Dirty Dee (Reg E. Cathey), dirt-encrusted pimp daddy (another racist stereotype). Together, Lecter and Dirty Dee gleefully get kids hooked on nicotine, burgers, malt liquor, and an unnamed white powder, until Pootie Tang hits it big with his heartfelt but incomprehensible Public Service Announcements, in which he tells the kiddies to stay away from drugs, malt liquor, and bad food, while pictured spanking Dirty Dee and his associates with his super-powered belt, which he wields with the virtuosity of his pop. Amid all the crime-fighting, Pootie still finds time to record a pop hit single (actually a few minutes of dead air recorded while Pootie silently emotes in R. Kelly fashion without singing a word), and become a superstar, loved by all the ladies.
But then Dick Lecter whips out his secret weapon, i.e., Racial Trope #3, the white woman who leads a black man to his doom. Lecter sends his girlfriend Ireenie (Jennifer Coolidge, reprising her American Pie and Down to Earth roles, as aging seductress) to discover and disarm the secret of Pootie Tang’s success, his belt. When Ireenie snatches that belt, he’s left as limp as Sampson without his locks, and signs a contract giving away all rights to his image to Lectercorp, prompting a proliferation of Pootie look-alikes (including Mr. Show‘s David Cross in blackface), Pootie malt liquor ads, and a Pootie Tang fast food chain.
Following this loss of “self,” Pootie goes into exile back at the farm. At the general store Pootie meets dopey country girl Stacy (Cathy Trien) and her father, the sheriff, who connives to marry her off to the stranger in town. Stacy shows up at Pootie’s farm and he seduces her by rubbing himself down with cherry pie, after which her father shoves a revolver in Pootie’s face, not to lynch him, but to administer a wedding. Here we see a power dynamic in which white males—the CEO in the city, the sheriff in the country—pimp their own daughters and girlfriends.
This may sound like some pretty heavy stuff for comedy, but Pootie Tang, despite its downright lame plot, reveals the seams of racial, class, and gender differences, as well as greed and celebrity, in the American social fabric. Amid ironic displays of glitz and glamour, the movie grounds its hero and message in the inner city, with man-on-the-street interviews and repeated images of Pootie’s fans and supporters, the working people and urban kids who idolize him. Although both HBO Films and MTV, the distributors of Pootie Tang, are themselves arms of media conglomerate Viacom, a corporation at least as greedy as Lectercorp, the film still slips in plenty of biting satire, mocking the excesses and abuses of corporate America, and proves Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and co. have the chops to turn a funny sketch into a funny movie. Still, let’s hope that they don’t, as promised at the end of Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine, bring us a sequel. Pootie’s got more than one joke, but only enough for this single layered, but thankfully brief, outing.