The Cookout (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

The sports reporters are upset: if Todd's not going to fit a stereotype, what good is he?"

The Cookout

Director: Lance Rivera
Cast: Storm P, Eve, Queen Latifah, Danny Glover, Tim Meadows
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Lions Gate
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-09-03

Queen Latifah must be busy these days, between voicing those irritating "rippin' and dippin'" ads for Pizza Hut, selecting movie roles, and keeping up her music and movie production company, Flava Unit. So, perhaps it's understandable that some projects get away from her. Or maybe they don't. As she and fellow cast members Tim Meadows and Farrah Fawcett appeared on tv Friday morning to promote The Cookout, they acted as if they were happy with their movie. Ah well, it's a living.

The Cookout -- the first directed by music video maestro Lance Rivera -- purports to be concerned with "family." Namely, the family of one Todd Anderson (Storm P), a young basketball player who, once an awkward schoolboy (revealed in very brief prelude, to show his friendship with fellow geek, braces-and-thick-glasses-wearing Becky), is now the first NBA draft pick. On winning a $30 million contract from the New Jersey Nets, he's immediately beset with expectations, spoken and not, from his family. After all, reason his mother Lady Em (Jenifer Lewis) and father JoJo (Frankie Faison), they've supported him all these years.

This image of the family unit -- however dysfunctional -- flies in the face of what Todd's new "public" assumes and, more importantly, what the Nets want to project. A couple of journalists ply him with questions regarding his background, itching to recount his up-form-the-streets story, his escape from the "hood," his resentment at his missing father, his survival of "drug abuse, the drink, or domestic violence." When Todd insists that his father is sitting right there beside him and moreover, that his family supports him wholeheartedly and their lives are middle class and fine, thanks, the sports reporters are forlorn. If he's not going to fit a stereotype, what good is he?

After this few-minutes-long interrogation, Todd confronts his real problem, his family. In addition to his parents, this includes assorted cousins, Aunt Nettie (Rita Owens) and Frank (Reg E. Cathey), a muttering, stumbling grandfather (Carl Wright), and a new girlfriend Brittany (Meagan Good). If Todd is exultant that she snuggles in his lap during the NBA Draft, Lady Em is less impressed, rolling her neck as she sizes up this "skanky" girl.

First, Todd tries to outfit the folks: he sends them (as a "gift") a white butler named (yawn) Jeeves (Gerry Bamma), DVD player and video camera, and industrial strength air conditioning ("We don't have to stick to the plastic on the furniture anymore," exults JoJo). Brittany has her own ideas about what Todd's new job means for her, namely, that he needs to move out of mom's house. And so Brittany picks out new digs, -- a huge white mansion in a white gated community, with seven bedrooms and 10 bathrooms.

Worried that his client is overspending, Todd's agent, Wes (Jonathan Silverman), sets up a meeting with a rep from a wireless phone company, Miss Peters (Marci Reid), in hopes of securing an endorsement contract. And wouldn't you know, the meeting with prissy Miss Peters is scheduled for the same day as the family cookout, which is supposed to smooth over all the ruffled feathers caused by Todd's seeming shift toward uppity behavior (the fact that he lets Brittany redo his mom's tacky décor in the new house is sign of this, and Lady Em resents it, for sure). The poor kid can't rearrange his day, and so he's stuck in the middle, trying to impress the nice lady and appease his ever-ready-to-be-mad family members.

The bulk of the movie concerns this disastrous day when all the relatives gets together at Todd's house, embarrassing him in front of Miss Peters and making him rethink his longstanding loyalty to his family. As The Cookout is hardly concerned with plot, a character list might suffice to describe what "happens": "country" cousins Jasper (Godfrey) and Jemar (Shawn Andrew) wear overalls, carry shotguns, and come bearing a dead deer ready for barbequing, and overweight pothead cousins Willie (Jerod Mixon) and Nelson (Jamal Mixon) arrive in a car filled with smoke and head immediately for whatever food is available.

The relatively sedate Uncle Leroy (Tim Meadows), who has failed the bar exam 15 times, can't help but offer free "legal" advice even when no one asks for it; most of this has to do with the racist injustice of the world, as when he notes that because people believe a black cat is "bad luck," his status as a black man (also known as a "cat") is what induced his wife to leave him. Or again, Nettie and Frank come over with their son Jamal (Kevin L. Phillips), who wishes Todd well even as he longs to be a doctor, an ambition that distresses his mother, competing with her sister Lady Em over whose son might make the most money.

The nearest neighbors -- Judge Crowley (Danny Glover) and Mrs. Crowley (Farrah Fawcett) -- provide The Cookout's jokes about racists: she's afraid that "Negroes" have moved in next door, assuming they're a "gang." He's stiff and fearful in his own way, rejecting Todd's greeting as a fellow "brother" in this Caucasian enclave, at least until he meets up with Willie and Nelson, who offer him some weed. After getting high, he's ready not only to reclaim his apparently repressed "blackness," but also to bed his wife. "Tired" doesn't begin to describe this stereotype.

A few other guests also make "surprise" appearances -- whom you know about from the start of the film, even if Todd doesn't -- including the gated community's wannabe-cop security guard (Latifah), his geeky childhood friend Becky (now grown up into the stunning and self-confident Eve), and Todd's other, mostly forgotten classmate Bling Bling (Ja Rule) and his sidekick Wheezer (Roberto Vanderpool). Their journey to the cookout begins with Bling Bling's scheme to force Todd to sign a crowd of stolen sneakers, so he can sell them on E-bay for lots of cash. His eventual arrival at the cookout erupts into mayhem, as he's outed as a wussy cry baby waving his gun because he can't do anything else. (The scene makes you think that 50 Cent is right about this guy.)

The film also hates on Bling Bling. He crashes his expensive car and he and Wheeze have to hitch a ride with a man driving a beat up, absolutely stinky truck (this after Wheeze has been sprayed by a skunk, which must have made someone laugh at some point in the filmmaking process, but it's hard to know why or how). Identified in the credits as the "poo salesman" (Vincent Pastore), this guy collects and sells manure, a job he describes in some detail, to the point that Bling Bling just has to get out. Here, at last, he's utterly right. Please, please, we all just want to get out.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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