Film

Juwanna Mann (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

It's no longer critiquing mainstream expectations, but instead, absorbing and reflecting stereotypes, drained of context.


Juwanna Mann

Director: Jesse Vaughan
Cast: Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr., Vivica A. Fox, Kevin Pollak, Tommy Davidson, Kim Wayans, Ginuwine, Lil Kim
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-06-21

Superstar pro basketballer Jamal Jeffries (Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr.) is cocky. He's got a Hummer limo, a sexy beauty of a girlfriend named Tina (Lil Kim), a couple of bulky bodyguards, and a huge manse where he parties like, all the time, man. He's in a movie with a soundtrack by Wendy and Lisa: life is looking good.

Then, predictably, the bottom drops out of Jamal's career. And wouldn't you know, it's his own fault. During some big-whoop game, he's benched for ball-hogging, argues with the straightest-looking coach imaginable, then, in a fit of frustration, strips and heaves his jockstrap out into the audience, where it lands splat on some nonplussed guy's mustard-slathered wiener. All this happens on national tv, of course, so that the next day, his Aunt Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) calls to chastise him for his retarded behavior. More to the point, the league suits are fed up, fed up, I tell you, and so, they suspend him.

All this happens within the first five minutes of Jesse Vaughan's Juwanna Mann, by way of setting up Jamal's big adventure: angry, abandoned by Tina (which is too bad, because Kim is more interesting to watch than most anyone else who's come on screen so far), and broke because he's been buying fur coats and Benzes like he's living inside MTV Cribs, he's gotta find a way to survive. While visiting Ruby back home in rural North Carolina, he passes a group of kids playing pickup, notices the girl is really good, and thinks, aha, he'll pass as a girl and play for the WUBA's Charlotte Banshees. And with that, Nuñez goes where many men -- including Tony Curtis, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Martin Lawrence -- have gone before, that fearsome world of makeup, high heels, curlers, push-up bras, and self-loving suitors, the world where men learn to be better men by wearing women's clothes.

This world is not a terrible place to revisit, but you know, the plot is tired. Still, if you're going to update Some Like It Hot -- and more specifically, make it black -- the hiding-out-in-the girls'-band ruse does need to be adjusted, and pro basketball certainly brings all the necessary anxieties about gender and sex right up to the surface. Sense is never the primary concern in cross-dressing romps (Hoffman, with five o'clock shadow, as a soap opera star? Martin Lawrence, with mustache, as someone's Momma?), and this one does nothing to shake up the formula.

Instead, Juwanna Mann does what you know it will. Jamal becomes Juwanna, blackmails his agent Lorne (Kevin Pollak) to help him in the subterfuge (a bit of plot that includes being caught looking like their humping over the fax machine -- ugly), catches flack for being a ball-hog on the women's team (too), and falls for his vivacious, hardworking teammate Michelle (Vivica A. Fox, who can do no wrong -- even in a painfully hackneyed role like this one, this girl jumps off the screen). Juwanna's learning curve, and she does have one, involves discovering that she can indeed play nice with the usual array of "types" on her team -- hairy Eastern-Euro-girl (Heather Quella); wise coach (Tammi Reiss); blond naïf, "here on a visa from Oklahoma" (Angela Cossey); and butch girl Latisha (Kim Wayans), who actually seems to switch, eyeing "bitches" and girl-talking with her teammates about man troubles.

By the end of the season, how shocking, Juwanna has become a more generous team player and her team is in the playoffs. She's also played good-sorta--but-not-quite-lesbian girlfriend to Michelle, helping through that Waiting-to-Exhale-ish moment when she discovers her R&B singer beau Romeo (Ginuwine), who's such a selfish player that, oh my gosh, he reminds Jamal of himself! So, Juwanna rubs lotion on Michelle's weary shoulders, comforts her when Romeo steps out, all the while keeping a pillow over her/his rowdy genitals. (Somehow, I don't recall Tony Curtis having quite the same self-management issues.)

Juwanna/Jamal's sexual desire may raise up its little head occasionally, but the film, like most cross-dressing farces, doesn't press the issue too hard. His passion for Michelle is pure, so while you may hope she'll hook up with Latisha, or worry that she'll discover the true nature of Jamal's equipment, really, the latter is the point -- he'll be found out, he'll apologize like crazy, she'll forgive his bad behavior, and they'll live happily ever after.

That heterosexual coupling part is tedious, just a way to tie up. As usual, the formula's most pressing anxiety and source of jokes is not straight or lesbian, but male-male action. What's in question from the start is Jamal's gaudy masculinity and aggressive heterosexuality, his inability to control himself, his flashing, his overspending in every conceivable way. (This excess includes the fact that Jamal looks vaguely femme to begin with, even when he's playing macho exhibitionist on the court, like someone's been picking at his eyebrows.) This isn't to say that self-control is the goal, but that more discreet self-displays may be in order.

But such restraint is at odds with a more conventional masculine ideal, embodied by charismatic ruffians like Vin Diesel or Wesley Snipes: the most popular masculine subject has a hard body, and everyone else just gets out the way. In Juwanna Mann, as in other cross-dressing movies, the desiring masculine subject must be temporarily displaced, such that your hero -- Jamal -- becomes desired, not by anyone threatening or very masculine, but by someone, like Joe E. Brown, who might easily accept his object even after he discovers she's a he.

Here, that displaced subject is a flamboyantly outfitted, platinum-toothed, wholly ignorant rapper, Puff Smokey Smoke (Tommy Davidson). The jokes start a-flying the minute he starts sniffing around Juwanna. Since he's buddies with Romeo, Michelle convinces Juwanna to double date, such that Juwanna gets mightily drunk, repeatedly slaps Puff's hands away, and eventually clobbers him, um, straight up. And Puff keeps coming, his red suits, cane, and Kangol caps suggesting nothing so much as his "dandy" inclinations. When Juwanna finally slams his privates, Puff doubles over in what can only be called a kind of ecstasy, awed by his love object's feistiness and, frankly, aim.

Ridiculing rap's too-masculine performances is hardly difficult these days, given the corny (designer) outfits and sync-dancing so many current artists affect by way of "crossing over." And, as cultural critic Andrew Ross noted a while back, in relation to RuPaul, gangstas and divas (drag queens) have plenty in common, based in their analogous parodies and exaggerations of traditional gender. Juwanna Mann revisits this idea, but turns the parody inside out: it's no longer critiquing mainstream expectations, but instead, absorbing and reflecting stereotypes, drained of context. When Juwanna's secret comes out -- of course, in an audaciously public way, during a game -- Puff is beside himself, a speck in the arena audience, smiling, mumbling, "It don't make no difference! I love you Juwanna." Poor Puff.

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