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Bourgeois Brotherhood 

The negatives of being positive

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
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The only interesting aspect of Malcolm Lee’s The Best Man, the template du jour for Negro-helmed films, was the character of Shelby, a light-skinned, money-obsessed beauty who was scapegoated for the film‘s anxieties about the status quo it was pimping. Viewers were goaded into hating her. In truth, she was the realest creature onscreen, the sole flash of truthfulness. The film was a bourgie primer, an uncritical celebration of status and wealth that a lot of black folk read as positive imagery. Shelby’s bitchiness wasn‘t simply rooted in unchecked ego, though, but in her contempt for the hypocrisy of the other characters. She shared their materialistic values and ideals, but didn’t clad her greed in uplift-the-race sentiment. That gave her an honesty that the rest of the film lacked -- and repeatedly sought to punish her for.

Writer-director Gary Hardwick‘s The Brothers is bourgie on a budget. It’s blatantly imitative of The Best Man, only without the saving grace of a Shelby to call it on its con. Brian (Bill Bellamy), Jackson (Morris Chestnut, the film‘s star) Derrick (D.L. Hughley) and Terry (Shemar Moore) have been best friends since childhood, though it’s not clear why save for some weird pop-culture law that friendship configurations must come in packages of four (as in Sex and the City, Waiting To Exhale, The Golden Girls). The upwardly mobile quartet (three businessmen and a pediatrician), now in their late 20s and early 30s, constantly throw bitter barbs at one another, so their hugs and high-fives don‘t really register the brotherhood they’re meant to. The near-constant tension between the characters and the lack of chemistry between the actors undermine the notion that they‘re truly boyz, leaving us to wonder, “Why are you friends?”

When Terry announces that he’s engaged to a woman he‘s only known a few months, the news throws the other men’s female problems into high relief. Jackson is afraid to commit and has nightmares of a veiled, gun-wielding bride stalking him; Derrick can‘t get his wife to go down on him, which almost lands the couple in divorce court; Brian’s embittered mom never told him that she loves him, so he‘s given up on sistas and is doing the white thing. All the characters -- luckily for them, monotonously for the viewers -- are defined by a single issue. Who needs psychological or emotional complexity when you have punch lines and shameless sentimentality?

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The Brothers is about boys becoming men with the love and support of male friends, and how navigating the gender wars is crucial to that transition. (A female character says that a man doesn’t even know what kind of man he is or wants to be until he meets the woman who will show him.) Hardwick might have squeaked by with this retro take on manhood and relationships if his jokes were funnier, if there were even a sliver of real emotion here or if he knew how to direct. But he fumbles the setups of the jokes, then pauses after the punch lines as if waiting for the audience‘s laughter, weighting the film with dead air. It doesn’t help that much of the humor is class-based riffing that‘s been done to death: Brian disses a single black mom in a bar for giving her kids the ghetto names “Tinesha” and “Tanaka”; Chris Rock and In Living Color already nailed that coffin shut. (To be fair, there are a few chuckles in the film, mainly courtesy of Jenifer Lewis doing her trademarked diva routine, and a catfight whose payoff is a spin on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The one thing that’s mildly interesting is Hardwick‘s obsession with fellatio; you’d have to look to gay porn to find as many references to the act in a single film.

Although the film is largely set in opulent homes and apartments (as if “positive black images” equaled conspicuous consumption), the shoddy photography renders everything dull, flat, while the audio often sounds as if it had been recorded in an echo chamber. The acting is fine, for the most part (there‘s a reason that the freakishly pretty Shemar Moore is shirtless in most of his scenes), but the actors are hampered by the fact that all the risk has been removed from their characters. It’s telegraphed from the start that nothing is genuinely at stake, that happy endings are guaranteed (a hug erases a lifetime of pain, a nibble of cake makes up for emotional betrayal), so the actors aren‘t allowed to inject ambiguity or nuance into their portrayals. It’ll be a surprise if The Brothers makes near the money, or has as great a Monday-morning water-cooler impact, as did The Best Man (or the coming-of-age film The Wood). If it registers at all, it‘ll likely be more because of the fuckability of Morris Chestnut -- a star waiting for a worthy film -- than any insights or memorable moments from the movie itself.

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