Undercover Brother (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Peppered with Chappellian hilarities (and the man can riff), it is more like Austin Powers than a hard-hitting satire, minus Mike Meyers' mania, plus Lee's deft direction and Griffin's own brand of energy.

Undercover Brother

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast: Eddie Griffin, Chris Kattan, Aunjanue Ellis, Dave Chappelle, Denise Richards, Chi McBride, Neil Patrick Harris, Billy Dee Williams, James Brown
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Imagine Entertainment
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-05-31

Keep that funk alive. Between NBA commercials, Snoop videos, and the recently increased visibility of Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, the funk seems to be everywhere, including the net, where Undercover Brother, John Ridley's celebrated animated series, has been holding it down at The titular hero wears purple bellbottoms and a large medallion, delights the ladies, and works for the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. going undercover as "mild-mannered Anton Jackson, harmless enough for white people to trust him," in order to fight The Man.

A suave, stack-heeled superhero, Undercover Brother has fought discrimination in network television (Episode #4" "Going Prime Time"), college basketball corruption (Episode #8: "Sir Dunkalot"), and Eminem (Episode #12: "Melts in Your Bleepin' Mouth"). When Anton spots trouble, he transforms into Undercover Brother, peeling off whatever disguise he's wearing, casting off his glasses, and popping loose his gigantic Afro. Though he likes to believe the best of people, and sincerely wants everyone to get along, he's not afraid to whoop ass when necessary. In Em's case, this meant ripping his head off, literally.

Aggressively clever, the series earned a tight following on the net. It was only a matter of time before its success would cost. And so, here comes Undercover Brother, the movie, from Imagine Entertainment (Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's company) in collusion with originator Urban Entertainment. In this incarnation -- which is all about entertainment, in case you were wondering -- the hero is played by Eddie Griffin, a fellow just brash and self-knowing enough to ward off concerns that (oh my!) the movie is full of stereotypes. Indeed, as director Malcolm D. Lee recently told BET Tonight's Ed Gordon, this is the point. And what if, asked Gordon, certain viewers -- say, white ones -- don't get all the jokes? Well, that's okay. "The jokes," said Lee, "are for who they're for."

They're also damn funny. Yes, they're watered down for crossover consumption, no matter Gordon's apprehension. But they're simultaneously wide-ranging and specific enough to hit some well-deserving targets. The film begins with a familiar framework, taking up subgeneric conventions already worked over in Charlie's Angels and Austin Powers, including the wink-wink overstatement regarding throwback fashion, music, and plot. In this case, the underpinning is '70s blaxploitation, turned inside out and smoothed over. Even his disguises are cute: 80-year-old man, office nerd, all-smiles Jamaican caddy. Still, as written by the series creator and novelist John Ridley and Michael McCullers, the film makes its points.

It opens with a bit of pseudo-doc background, not exactly Undercover Brother's origin story, but a good reason for him to feel committed to the cause. Dennis Rodman, Erkel, Mr. T. You couldn't have picked easier targets, and they do their work. "These seemingly random events," intones a documentary-style voiceover, "were in fact orchestrated by The Man." Enter Undercover Brother, who first appears on screen in his gold '74 Coup de Ville, spinning in accident-avoiding circles so extravagant that even passersby are tripping over themselves and dropping their drinks. But he's smooth as can be, palming the power steering wheel and not even thinking about spilling his orange Big Gulp.

Undercover Brother's a solo act, doing right for the community, and earning a slamming reputation to boot. But then, he breaks into a bank's computer system in order to erase mortgage payments records for those in need of relief. Doing his good deed, Undercover Brother is espied by members of the underground B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., who haul him into headquarters (under Roscoe's Barber Shop). Here he meets the crew: the Chief (Chi McBride), Sistah Girl (Anjanue Ellis), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle, always excellent), and a hapless intern named Lance (Neil Patrick Harris), who performs blackness when called on, and sometimes when he's not ("We're gettin' all racial up in this piece!"). Pledged to squash racism and fight for social justice and the African American way of life, the group convinces Undercover Brother to join them.

Their first collabo: to beat back Operation Whitewash, wherein The Man devises to thwart the political career Colin-Powellish General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), by means of some dastardly mind-controlling drug. Boutwell abandons his campaign plans and starts selling fried chicken, licking his lips and extolling the virtues of hot sauce. Down at B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. HQ, the dumbfounded crew watches the General shuck and jive on tv. Conspiracy Brother's worst fears are confirmed: "Sometimes," he observes, "people -- mostly white people -- make things happen." The brothers -- and Sistah Girl -- all agree that it's time to send in Undercover Brother.

Before he can infiltrate The Man's office building, however, Undercover Brother must be trained in the wiles of Caucasian culture. Smart Brother wires him up with Caucasiavision, loading up his mind Clockwork Orange-style with images from Murder, She Wrote, as well as shots of square-dancers, the Backstreet Boys, and Riverdancers. Stop! Stop! "Too much white!" whimpers Undercover Brother. Even for the cause, there's only so much you can take. Still, at the end of the process, he can eat mayonnaise sandwiches and recount the minutest of Friends details. Ready to penetrate.

Where Undercover Brother's mission is to pass into the foreign culture, The Man's plan is to remain out of sight completely. Unfortunately, his major minion is excessively visible: Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan, who needs a leash, please) prances and bugs out his eyes when fretting that "they're taking over all aspects of our culture." When he hears a little Mary J. ("Family Affair," the Dre-beats), poor white boy just can't help but feel the funk. "Word. Fosheezy my neezy," he blurts, then claps his hand over his mouth, horrified that he's been so infected by the alien culture.

Tit for tat. The Man's counter-plan is to infect Undercover Brother back, to destroy his mojo, if you will. They send in their secret weapon, Penelope Snow, a.k.a. the White She Devil, a.k.a. the Black Man's Kryptonite (all bundled up as a big-haired and repeatedly hair-flipping Denise Richards). Though they're supposed to be working to opposite ends, the two hit it off. On one date, they rightfully butcher McCartney's "Ebony & Ivory" at a karaoke bar, and soon find themselves getting on the Love Train. Within days, she has her short black superheroic man chowing down on drugged mayonnaise sandwiches (other examples of the demise of Black Culture, brought on by his descent, include an album full of Jay-Z covering Lawrence Welk hits, and John Singleton directing a remake of Driving Miss Daisy). Lucky for Undercover Brother, lost and confused as he is, he has Sistah Girl to come save his ass.

Peppered with Chappellian hilarities (and the man can riff), Undercover Brother is more like Austin Powers than a hard-hitting satire, minus Mike Meyers' mania, plus Lee's deft direction and Griffin's own brand of energy. The film is raucously incoherence (a series of skits, really), granting equal time to ridiculous characters and genre-deconstructive insights. It's not going to change minds, but it reflects and satirizes an increasingly integrated, increasingly tense, and increasingly chaotic world. There's no turning around. As White She Devil puts it, "Once you've had Undercover Brother, there is no other." Or perhaps more clearly, as Conspiracy Brother corrects her, "Once you go black, you never go back." Perhaps she knows what she means.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.