Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Undercover Brother

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee and written by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover Brother is the story of a freelance agent who joins a secret African-American organization in a battle against a mysterious villain known as the Man who wants to spread white culture into African-Americans. The film is a spoof of sorts on spy films as well as the world of 70s blaxploitation films as the titular character is played by Eddie Griffin. Also starring Chris Kattan, Dave Chappelle, Denise Richards, Aunjanue Ellis, Neil Patrick Harris, Gary Anthony Williams, Chi McBride, and Billy Dee Williams. Undercover Brother is a hilarious and engaging comedy from Malcolm D. Lee.

Set in a world where African-American pop culture is in a state of decline since the 1980s due to the efforts of a mysterious figure known as the Man, the film is a 70s blaxploitation-inspired spoof on the spy movies where an agent named Undercover Brother fights against the Man and his evil forces as he becomes a member of a secret organization known as the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to fight against the Man. When a revered general named Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams) becomes a victim of the Man’s plot against Black America by announcing his own fried chicken franchise. Undercover Brother and the rest of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. organization do whatever they can to stop the Man and his lackey Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan) who would go to great lengths to stop Undercover Brother and his team. All of which is told in a very lively fashion as it plays into a lot of things about African-American culture as well as certain prejudices between White America and Black America.

The film’s screenplay definitely plays into the world of black and white culture as it features some narration by J.D. Hall about this war between the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. and the Man. With Undercover Brother leading the way, the team would include the very angry Chief (Chi McBride) who is a variation of every angry African-American boss. There’s also the brash Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) who is the film’s conscience of sorts, the nerdy Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), the always angry and paranoid Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), and a white intern named Lance (Neil Patrick Harris) who is part of the organization due to affirmative action. While they all try to fight the Man and Mr. Feather, Undercover Brother goes through challenges in his line of work as he would endure the world of white culture and the Man’s secret weapon in a white woman known as White She-Devil (Denise Richards).

Part of the script’s genius isn’t just about its riff on popular culture and the idea of black people acting white but also some of its prejudices. There’s one notable scene where Undercover Brother arrives to give his report as he is suddenly dressed up in corduroys and drinking a guava-mango smoothie while talking in a white language. What makes the moment so funny is how his fellow employees react to the news that he slept with a white girl yet Sistah Girl isn’t happy about it. There’s also some prejudices as it relates to white people as Lance is often bullied by Conspiracy Brother where Lance believes that just because a black man does certain things and he’s called a sell-out which shows a lot of contradictions. While it’s a script that showcases a lot of things about certain prejudices in all forms of races plus the way blacks and white often deviate into their own forms of stereotypes. A lot of is presented in a very humorous fashion as the screenplay is often consistently funny.

Malcolm D. Lee’s direction is pretty straightforward in terms of compositions and such while he does infuse a lot of style that pays true to 1970s blaxploitation cinema. A lot of it is played for laughs in some of the fight scenes involving Undercover Brother as well as one between Sistah Girl and White She-Devil. There’s an intimacy that occurs in many of the scenes at the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. secret headquarters while there’s also some scenes where Lee uses some wide shots in some of the film’s locations. There’s also a lot of recurring jokes that Lee puts in such as General Boutwell’s fried chicken commercial, Mr. Feather’s struggle to maintain his whiteness against Undercover Brother, and all sorts of things. Overall, Lee crafts a very witty and thoroughly entertaining comedy about an African-American agent fighting the Man.

Cinematographer Tom Priestley Jr. does excellent work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on bright colors as well as some of the lighting in some of the film’s nighttime scenes. Editor William Kerr does amazing work in the editing with its stylish approach to montages plus some of the rhythmic cuts for its action and humorous moments. Production designer William A. Elliott, with art director Elis Lam and set decorators Ide Foyle and Clive Thomasson, does fantastic work with the set pieces from the secret headquarters of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to the look of the home base of Mr. Feather. Costume designer Danielle Hollowell does brilliant work with the costumes from the 70s clothing of Undercover Brother as well as the disguises he wears including the khaki/corduroy clothes he wears under the spell of White She-Devil.

Visual effects supervisor Gudrun Heinze does nice work in some of visual effects that is mostly low-key and minimal for some of the gadgets that Undercover Brother uses. Sound designer Benjamin Cheah and sound editor Paul Urmson do terrific work in the sound from some of the sound effects as well as some of the moments that occur in Mr. Feather‘s secret base. The film’s music by Stanley Clarke is wonderful for its mixture of funk and horn-based music to play into its action and humor while music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg creates a fun soundtrack filled with hip-hop and soul music from James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Mary Jane Girls, Average White Band, Snoop Dogg, Rose Royce, Michael Jackson, Kool & the Gang, the O’Jays, and Wild Cherry plus some white-based pop from ‘Nsync, Willa Ford, and a hilarious karaoke cover of Ebony & Ivory.

The casting by Robi Reed is incredible as it features some notable small appearances from James Brown as himself, Jack Noseworthy as Mr. Feather’s assistant, and Robert Trumbull as the mysterious figure known as the Man. Billy Dee Williams is pretty good as General Boutwell who becomes a victim of the Man when he decides to open his own fried chicken franchise instead of running for president while Gary Anthony Williams is terrific as the nerdy scientist Smart Brother. Chi McBride is excellent as often angry Chief who is a version of every angry African-American leader as he carries a picture of Danny Glover. Denise Richards is pretty good as White She-Devil as this very seductive figure who would try to woo Undercover Brother into turning white. Aunjanue Ellis is superb as Sistah Girl as the film’s conscience of sorts as she tries to deal with her feelings for Undercover Brother while doing her job.

Dave Chappelle is hilarious as the very paranoid Conspiracy Brother who always spout some crazy things along with insane theories as he also talks down about the degradation of African-Americans and their stereotypes. The film’s big scene-stealer is Neil Patrick Harris as the white intern Lance where Harris is just awesome as a white guy who does white things while proving to be good at his job just as long as people don’t call him a sissy. Chris Kattan is wonderful as Mr. Feather as this devious henchman of the man who battles Undercover Brother while struggling to maintain his whiteness as it’s Kattan in one of his funniest roles. Finally, there’s Eddie Griffin in a marvelous performance as the titular character as this very lively and resourceful agent who can kick ass and do all sorts of things while Griffin is at his most funniest when he tries to act white as it is one of his best performances ever.

Undercover Brother is a fantastic film from Malcolm D. Lee. Armed with a great cast as well as a smart spoof on the spy films as well as a homage to 70s blaxploitation films. It’s a comedy that is entertaining while having something to say about racial prejudices and such. In the end, Undercover Brother is a solid yet funny film from Malcolm D. Lee.

© thevoid99 2014


Dell said...

I've only seen this in bits and pieces an keep meaning to go back to it. Thanks for the reminder.

thevoid99 said...

You need to see the whole thing. It's so hilarious.

Brittani Burnham said...

I remember going to see this in theaters, but I do not remember a single thing from this entire film. I guess I need to revisit it! Great review!

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-It's a better film that it needs to be as re-watches certainly helps the film's reputation. Especially since the idea of the film was conceived by the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave.