The black comedy is something of a double-edged sword. It is without a doubt the most visible, most financially profitable segment of African-American film and at times it is the only intellectual property that the media conglomerates, in their infinite wisdom, will often consider producing. But at the same time they often reinforce offensive stereotypes and for members of the target demographic are a painful reminder of the mammies and painted faces of our collective theatrical past.
It is upon this tarnished landscape that the black urban social comedy re-appeared. Though the pundits may debate the actual harbinger of present incarnations, the roots of the figurative genealogical tree lay somewhere between Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans. Incorporate a rap-artist with a social consciousness and ties to the film community resulting from his starring role in “Boyz in the ‘Hood” and you witness the creation of “Friday”, the mother of all black socio-comedies. A critical and financial success that was equally enjoyed by those inside and outside of “the intended black audience”, it seemed to be the kiss of death for the genre for no-one has been able to duplicate the feat.
“All about the Benjamin’s” is without a doubt the quintessential, reaffirming sign that this genre is alive and well and to a larger extent calls into question what are the long-term affects of major studio involvement and pre-determined performance goals on a burgeoning artform. From it’s opening salvo “All About the Benjamin’s” is virile and efficient, but that is not the issue. I could go on and on about how funny this film is, because it is truly great comedy. The comedic timing and familiarity of Ice Cube and Mike Epps remind this reviewer of great ensemble pieces of this medium’s past and is personally the most rewarding comedy I have seen since The Independent, but that is not the issue. Ice Cube seems to silence all his critics that have attached the one-dimensional-one-trick-pony moniker with a role that requires him to carry not only a majority of the plotline but nearly all the supporting roles, but that is not the issue. The real issue here is that “All About the Benjamin’s” is a black comedy that does not feature welfare checks, crackwhores, thugs, gangs, misogyny, stereotypes, tokenism or a ridiculous overabundance of hip-hop for the sake of pacifying an audience that wishes only to see a regurgitation of the values that the media empire has been selling them since their first breath. Ice Cube plays Bucum Jackson, an efficient albeit somewhat reckless bounty hunter, who has a propensity for tropical fish. Yes, I said fish. The visual of a main character taking great pleasure in what the intended audience collectively knows little about gave a feeling of “there is more to life that what you see on this screen” to the theater and to the genre. Upon his desk lands the file of Reggie Wright (Mike Epps) a small-time conman who Bucum as locked up atleast a dozen times. What follows is a cat and mouse game of Bucum chasing Reggie that inevitable has the two of them stumble across a diamond heist. Rest-assured that you will see none of the jokes coming, nor will you feel the plot devices that are hard at work. This is a well written screenplay that will definitely have a resounding influence on its viewership. Be it the bailbonds secretary Pam (Valarie Ræ) who is more interested in starting a private investigation firm with Bucum than being his personal video-chick or Reggie’s (Mike Epps) inability to ever lose sight of how deeply in love he is with his girlfriend Gina (Eva Mendes). This is a technically perfect film with wall-to-wall money shots that simultaneously raises the bar for cinematography and Screenwriting. Mike Epps has the film world by the proverbial “short and curlies” after his performance here and should have no problem moving into a feature of his own. For Ice Cube it is a reaffirmation of what he has been attempting to tell the film world since his appearance (you don’t know my people like I know my people) and hopefully Cubevision will reap the benefits of greater influence and larger production budgets.
I must admit that before attending the screening I was not looking forward to this film and I was pleasantly surprised. But why was I avoiding this film? For that I must thank New Line Cinema who is, with a misdirected and ill-informed ad campaign, advertising this film as the next in an endless line of black guys-killing-black guys for money film. I wonder if at any time did the executives at New Line Cinema realize that the had a truly breakout hit on their hands that came with an indigenous populace and a throng of fans that have been looking for it ever since “Friday” hit the video store shelves. At a recent Black Hollywood Education Resource Center screening “All About The Benjamin’s” did what I had yet to see any other entrant in this arena do, it crossed generational lines and had 18 year-olds and 50 year-olds talking about the merits of the same film…. and that is truly it’s greatest accomplishment.
At what point will this genre, which has a goal much greater than making you laugh, stop being used as an “executive-producing training ground” for the recipients of nepotism and become a full fledged artform? How many scripts and treatments have been modified to appease “the have’s” at the expense of the “have-not’s”. This reviewer can only wonder.