American Popular Culture Home American Popular Culture Home
American Popular Culture Home About Americana Contact Americana American Popular Culture Archive
 MAGAZINE AMERICANA
 
Film
Television
Music
Sports
Politics
Venues
Style
Bestsellers
Emerging Pop Culture
Archive
Links
Magazine Home
 AMERICANA: THE
 JOURNAL OF AMERICAN
 POPULAR CULTURE
 ENDOWMENT FUND
Become a member!
Receive our
e-newsletter
 SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
Magazine
Journal
E-newsletter
   
 
Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
 THE CONTRADICTION OF COMEDY:
STEVE MARTIN, QUEEN LATIFAH,  AND RACE IN
BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

It seems almost impossible, and somewhat disturbing, to imagine finding humor in a subject as controversial and inflammatory as racism. Norman Leer was undoubtedly successful with his concept for All in the Family, but the fine line between being entertaining and being offensive runs deep with such an issue that is historically embedded in the consciousness of American society. In fact, when Queen Latifah first read the original script for Bringing Down the House, she insisted that changes be made because of its overtly inappropriate language and racial slurs. Even with this watered-down version however, it is clear that the film sets out to examine the extent of sociological ideology through the lens of comedic relief.

The story places Peter Sanderson, a white, middle-aged Los Angeles attorney, head to head with Charlene Morton, a poor, black ex-felon, which creates a situation that causes both characters to acknowledge the vast differences of each other’s worlds. Given this fundamental plot, it would seem that the movie could take advantage of the enormous opportunity it has to address these various issues of race, class, and gender—albeit in a light, off-the-cuff manner. And while Bringing Down the House confronts particular stereotypes that have long been perpetuated, it nonetheless falls back on a traditional story line that reinforces underlying social preconceptions, and essentially promotes the separation between these two distinct worlds. By only presenting the two polar opposites of the societal spectrum, wealthy whites and poor blacks, and no individuals in between, the movie reinforces the idea that African Americans and Caucasians cannot coexist within the same sphere because of their seemingly “innate” differences. Thus, though these filmmakers on one hand were successful at employing humor to address existing racism, they ultimately stopped short of any real kind of message and instead merely supported certain notions of race, gender, and class that have thrived in mass media images throughout cinematic history.

Despite this story’s inherent flaws, I can’t say this film has no message at all. Its efforts to confront racism and traditional stereotypes are not without their merits. Charlene, played by Queen Latifah, is a bright, savvy woman who knows the law and understands the intricacies of her legal case. Consequently, she proves to Sanderson, who equates her “improper” English with ignorance, that she, in fact, is intelligent and can hold her own with any formally educated individual. Furthermore, her role is integral to Sanderson’s life to the extent that she teaches him the value of emotions over intellect and emphasizes the importance of his wife and family in the face of his demanding profession.

The audience is introduced to Peter Sanderson as he struggles in an unhappy divorce and a stressful career that prevents him from spending valuable time with his children. While Sanderson appears to embody the white American dream with his large house, attractive family, and well-paying job, it is nonetheless Charlene’s entrance into his world that shows him what his true priorities should be and what real success is. She becomes his confidante and counselor in his attempt to woo back his wife and build a stronger relationship with his children. Many scenes throughout the movie reveal Charlene coaching Sanderson in how to talk to his daughter about boys, how to become more sexually adventurous with his wife, and how to help his son overcome his struggle with reading. Hence the film turns certain preconceptions on their ear by demonstrating how an uneducated, black woman is the vital force in maintaining the white, nuclear, “all-American” family.

Bringing Down the House also addresses societal prejudice by employing the use of a racist neighbor, reminiscent of Archie Bunker, who lives across the street in Sanderson’s affluent white community. Her proclivity to degrade almost every ethnic and sexually oriented minority group is meant to reveal the ignorance and abhorrence of bigotry through the medium of humor and sarcasm. She refers to Georgey Sanderson, Peter’s son, as a “fag” because of his hairstyle and asks Sanderson if a group of Hispanics that were looking at a house down the block were “casing it.” Exposure to this character’s outwardly prejudiced attitudes forces the audience to consider their less blatant, but equally as dangerous, preconceived notions about certain groups of people.

Even Charlene herself reverts to some of the traditional racist images of African Americans to illustrate the absurdity of these deluded stereotypes. In Sanderson’s various attempts to explain to clients and business associates why a poor, black woman would be in his social circle, Charlene is forced to accept the traditional African-American stereotypes as the hired help, a church gospel leader, and an Aunt Jemima-like character. While she assumes these roles because she is dependent on Sanderson for legal counsel, she indiscreetly rebels by acting out these images to their extremes. Thus she uses a “slave” dialect and performs a minstrel shuffle in order to emphasize how ludicrous and objectionable these ideologies are, as well as the fact that prejudice still exists in America, even among the most educated and refined. While these messages are delivered in a comedic form, their influence is not lost on the audience. I found myself scoffing at the racist neighbor and the ridiculous roles Charlene has to perform, in part because of what I have acknowledged as an unacceptable, antiquated mentality that has no business being in today’s forward-thinking society. Nonetheless, these caricatures of discriminatory ideology also caused me to examine my own preconceptions and evaluate whether I embody certain aspects of these prejudices, in terms of how I regard various groups of people, underneath the socially constructed framework of political correctness.

One other comment should be made about the progressiveness of Bringing Down the House. It is interesting to note that Queen Latifah, a larger woman of color, was able to land the leading role opposite a white man in a non-black film. Though this movie is not the first of its kind to promote a non-traditional female lead, this inclusion is monumental in fact because Latifah’s character does not embody any of the conventional Anglo standards of beauty, such as a slim physique, light skin, and small facial features. In this sense, this movie deconstructs all the traditional conceptions by presenting a female lead that redefines how beauty is understood. This broad-minded aspect of the film is even more impressive when you stop to consider how many larger Caucasian females have had the opportunity to star in their own romantic comedies. Hence Queen Latifah’s performance not only breaks through various racial boundaries associated with the long-established genre, but it also provides a somewhat new image for what female leads can look like and all the different shapes and sizes in which they can come.

While this role represents a major step in how Hollywood views minorities in the movie industry, it remains abundantly clear that certain underlying ideologies remain strong in cinematic imagery, as well as in the story lines that have become prominent in the romantic comedy genre. Thus Bringing Down the House is no exception to this rule, and consequently employs other stereotypes and preconceptions that are just as damaging as those they address in the film. To begin with, the movie’s concept embeds a certain amount of social dominance in the relationship between the two main characters. Peter Sanderson, as a white, rich male, represents the top of the power hierarchy while Charlene Morton, a poor, black female, embodies the bottom portion. As if this did not create enough tension, Charlene finds herself dependent on Sanderson to help her with the false charges of armed robbery against her. Subsequently, her freedom rests in the hands of a white man—a scenario that resonates deeply in African-American history. Hence as progressive as this film attempts to be in some ways, its situational context of power between the two main characters ultimately reverts it back to the familiar understandings of racial relations in America and its conventional representations through the mass media.

Moreover, as Bringing Down the House confronts prejudice and racism throughout its work, it nonetheless applies more subtle stereotypes that are used to categorize and compartmentalize certain groups of people. For example, African Americans in the film are associated with poverty, jail, drugs, and violence. Charlene is portrayed as solving her problems with violence, whether she is beating a woman to a pulp in the restroom or hanging a teenager over the ledge of a building to make him apologize to Sanderson’s daughter. Thus the image is presented that black people do not settle their disputes with words, but rather with fierce action in order to get their message heard. This idea is further perpetuated in a particular scene in which Sanderson visits a predominantly black nightclub in order to receive a confession from Charlene’s ex-boyfriend that he framed her in the bank robbery. Not only does violence run rampant as Charlene gets shot in the club, but drugs and poverty set the backdrop, which promotes the notion that this is what constitutes the African-American world. Consequently, as the filmmakers are successful at acknowledging the more blatant forms of racism in the United States, they ultimately fall back on other forms of stereotyping in their story line, which makes the movie appear to be guilty of the same sins it attempts to admonish in its work.

In fact, even the casting of Queen Latifah, and the character she assumes, poses some questions as to how forward-minded this movie really is. When examined somewhat closer, Charlene Morton seems to embody the two most lasting representations of black women in the mass media—that of “the Mammy” and that of “the Jezebel.” As Gail Dines, a professor of women’s and media studies, discusses, the Mammy “is usually very fat... very dark, and wears a bandanna and a beaming smile as a sign of how much she enjoys her oppressed position.... She was often shown as deeply committed to the white family and especially caring of the children.”

Though Charlene lacks the bandanna, she otherwise fits the above description, particularly in her position with the Sanderson family. She is revealed as the answer to their needs in as far as she is able to help Georgey Sanderson, the son, overcome a learning disability and Sarah Sanderson, the daughter, deal with boy issues. Furthermore, Charlene aids in bringing Peter Sanderson back together with his ex-wife by teaching him how to loosen up and express his true inner emotions. She ends up breaking Sanderson’s cell phone in the middle of his conversation to illustrate the importance of personal connections over high-speed access. It was, in fact, Sanderson’s incessant use of his phone and constant obsession with his work that drove his wife away in the first place. Thus we see Charlene’s positive influence on the attorney in the final scene where he has left his large firm and monumentally throws his cell phone out the window in order to enjoy the company of his wife. Hence though Charlene may be somewhat of a novel character, her general appearance and actions in helping to piece together the white family demonstrate a much more historical black female image that has infiltrated film since its inception.

Likewise, Charlene seems to symbolize another traditional representation of the African-American woman, the Jezebel. Dines acknowledges that, similar to the Mammy depiction, the Jezebel image “clearly has its roots in slavery, where it was used to legitimize the rape of black women by white men.” These women are portrayed as “sexually insatiable” and having an “excessive appetite for sex,” which creates the view of females as purely sexual objects. In Bringing Down the House, Howie Rottman, Sanderson’s associate and friend, identifies Charlene as a “cocoa goddess” and consequently makes overt passes at her in an attempt to seduce her into bed with him. Once again this unequal power relationship, particularly in a sexual context, reveals the attempt for white male dominance over black femininity—a scenario which hearkens back to the days of slavery and its vulgar mistreatment of black female servants by their white owners. Charlene’s image as a sexual creature is even further perpetuated in a scene where she is trying to teach Sanderson how to satisfy his wife. She instructs the new divorcee on how to be more sexually forceful in an almost animalistic kind of manner where she encourages him to “own that jungle” and ends up mounting Sanderson on his living room couch. Thus the Jezebel image continues to resonate within the character of Charlene, which begs to question whether this leading lady is truly a new kind of woman or rather an amalgamation of traditional, racially-based stereotypes that date back to the antiquated antebellum period.

An even further question that I offer in regard to this issue is whether this film is actually promoting tolerance and a better understanding of social differences, or rather merely emphasizing the existence of separate racial worlds that are perhaps only somewhat more understated than what existed during segregation. By demonstrating how out of place each of the two main characters are when they enter into the other’s community, Bringing Down the House ultimately illustrates the chaos that ensues when these two seemingly non-compatible spheres collide. Charlene is made to feel like a second-class citizen in a white, affluent community that values African Americans solely for their labor skills and sexual prowess. Sanderson appears weak and emasculated in an urban, black environment that sees violence on a daily basis and is forced to resort to crime and drugs in an effort to maintain a particular lifestyle. While it seems almost unquestionable that the film vastly oversimplifies these caricatures, its message of the conflict between these two ways of life nonetheless is quite clear.

The conventional ending in which Sanderson reunites with his white wife appears to instill the notion that America, to a certain degree, is still uncomfortable with an interracial, inter-class relationship. Moreover, though Charlene in the end finds herself with Sanderson’s white associate Howie Rottman, the distinctive, unbalanced power relationship still remains in which Charlene is valued for her sexuality and physical attributes rather than for her intellectual capabilities or emotional connections. Thus the basic story line perpetuates the idea that certain unconquerable barriers exist between these two social circles, and consequently any attempt to break through these constraints can only result in chaos and an existence in which individuals feel out of place and misunderstood.

Stuart Hall, a renowned professor and cultural scholar, once wrote in "The Whites of Their Eyes":

Ideologies are, of course, worked on in many places in society, and not only in the head... But institutions like the media are peculiarly central to the matter since they are, by definition, part of the dominant means of ideological production. What they “produce” is, precisely, representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work.

Based on this interpretation, a film such as Bringing Down the House retains a large amount of influence, in terms of how it treats issues of race, gender, and class, as well as how it portrays these issues as a larger reflection of social reality. To this extent, the messages and images that this movie transmits through its medium of comedy are undeniably dualistic and somewhat contradictory in their nature. While blatant racism and traditional stereotypes are unabashedly confronted throughout the context of the movie, the underlying story line based on unequal power distribution and antiquated racial representations simultaneously conveys its own description of how the world functions. Thus in many ways Bringing Down the House works against the desired effect it is possibly trying to achieve.

To a certain extent, it appears that the film had the opportunity to address the deeply-rooted and still highly controversial issue of racism in a comedic fashion, but instead chose to fall back on dated stereotypes as a means of attaining cheap laughs and physical humor. It seems a shame, in fact, that a culture as wide and diverse as ours was essentially ignored by the movie’s ideological message and rather was presented in a very limited and narrow way in the name of producing blockbuster sales and attracting large audiences.

July 2003

From guest contributor Kristin Ecklund

[back to top]

Home | About Us | Contact | Archive

All materials on this site © 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture

Website Created by Cave Painting