Fridayrecommended viewing

...Belongs in the Smithsonian
F. Gary Gray
Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Nia Long, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, John Witherspoon
The Setup: 
Two guys hang out on their front porch in South Central.

I had always heard that this movie is good, but I never really comprehended how very good it was. It's REALLY good, and even if you allow yourself to watch nothing but Persona and The 400 Blows and L'Avventura, you still need to watch it. WHERE is the Criterion Collection for something like this? They're running around licking Wes Anderson's balls for putting out the exact same movie over and over and over and over, but what about this? They did Dazed and Confused, they NEED to include this.

We open with a long series of pans across the Jones household, seeing the sleeping mother and father, sister trying to sleep without disturbing her hairstyle, and Ice Cube as Craig. There is a breakfast scene in which we find out that Craig lost his job on the previous day, his day off. His mother says she didn't tell his father, then his father calls him in to the bathroom, where he is in the process of taking a shit, and begins with "Your mother told me that you lost your job yesterday." He tells Craig to go out and find a job, and suggests that he follow his footsteps and become a dogcatcher. When Craig balks, his dad describes the releases of the job, how he gets off on sticking his foot up a dog's ass: "All day long, my foot up a dog's ass! Bam! Bam! Bam! That's my pleasure."

Then Chris Tucker as Smokey aka Smoke sticks his head in the window, telling Craig that he's going to have a great day because "He ain't got no job, and he's got shit to do." He is called smoke because all he does is smoke weed. They hang out on the front porch and gossip about gangsters and wait for Craig's mom to leave so that Smokey can light up; Craig is currently not smoking. There's a hilarious scene where they try to move Smoke's car, which is such a junker they have to push it into place because it won't run and then the door won't close, and after all that, Smoke tosses his hand over his shoulder to activate the alarm.

Then this huge bald local gangster on a bicycle, Deebo, shows up and forces Smoke to break into this other guys house. Smoke owes $200 to this dealer because he smoked up all the grass he was supposed to sell, and somehow he gets the money but then Deebo takes it, and the other dealer insists that he have the money by 10PM that night or both he and Craig will be killed. Along in here, this SKANKY burnout girl Felisha shows up, begging for weed in her shaggy nasty dreadlocks. There's also this shiftless guy who's always showing up where he's not wanted in Ezal. These characters are hilarious, and are treated with such a genial acceptance they come off as akin to pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons. Finally Craig agrees and smokes some grass, and Ice Cube does a very good job of freaking out, and the director does a great job of expressing what it's like to be tripping too far on grass—not that I would know a single thing about that, but I have read detailed accounts of it described in certain anthropological journals.

So somewhere in here Craig gets a gun, and suddenly Smokey REALLY has to take a shit. He's running around knocking on people's doors, and finally has to take a shit in the bushes, when Ezal, they guy who always shows up when no one wants him, shows up and screams out to the neighborhood that Smokey's taking a shit back there, then says "I won't tell nobody else." Then Craig's dad shows up and gives him a big anti-gun speech [without the lecturing and treacle], saying that when people fight with their fists they don't get killed.

After a few more run-ins with Deebo, Smokey goes over to his house and sneaks in the window while he's asleep to steal his $200 back. He sees some soiled underwear of Deebo's and tries to move them to get at the money, but they fall on Deebo's face, which causes him to purr slightly! Then Ezal shows up even there!

Smokey gets his money to the dealer, but then Deebo comes by and pitches a fit, and he and Craig have a really intense, visceral fight. It builds until Craig pulls out his gun! After some more fighting, he shoots Deebo in the face! I was like—woah, this movie's going in a direction I didn't expect, but after a few flashbacks we see that Craig didn't actually shoot—it was a Last Temptation of Christ kind of thing in which his mind ran through all these scenarios. So they have this big drag-out fight and finally Craig wins! The end.

It was so good. I particularly admire these movies that can seen like absolutely nothing is happening, like we're just meandering among unrelated topics, and at the end pull it all together into a cohesive whole that brings the entire thing into clear focus and makes it all seem so carefully plotted-out. This movie is fairly lacerating about certain members of the black community, yet is so warm and infused with such affection [I caught myself before becoming the kind of person who uses the word 'humanity' as an adjective] that it doesn't seem like it's candy-coating anything [see: Honey] or leaving out the unsavory characters. It was also absolutely hilarious, but without me laughing out loud more than a few times. It just leaves you with a good feeling, but one substantial enough to feel like you've really seen something, not just had a pleasant waste of 90 minutes.

So about two weeks after watching this I forced my friend, the 63-year-old white psychoanalyst, to watch it with me. He did not respond to the humor at all, and said after about twenty minutes, “It’s very dark.” So, because I was in his presence, I watched it this time almost entirely as a serious movie.

It is VERY dark. Some of the things that are individually horrifying is that when they first meet Ezal, he’s asleep in the road. Felisha is a skanky mooch who sleeps around and eventually gets beaten up—after being shoved out of bed onto the floor. A potential drive-by shooting comes out of nowhere and vanishes without comment. There are tiny but very potent little reminders of the horror happening around them dropped here and there throughout, and it’s sometimes hard to know how to take them, especially as the movie is trying to be funniest exactly in some of these moments. Not to mention the fact that almost everyone here betrays each other on matters large and small from beginning to end. And the general air of the discourse is one of lies, insults and denials. And all of this is played against how essentially sweet the tone is, with a strong sense of family and community and values. This is what makes this movie not just an awesome stoner comedy but a serious work of drama. It occurs to me that if Ice Cube and DJ Pooh want to make some more money they should adapt this to Broadway.

My friend and I also discussed how one, as a white person, is supposed to react to this. He asked me if the rather middle-class home Craig lives in, with ceramic ducks on shelves and other country-ish knick-knacks, was realistic, and I had to say that I had absolutely no way of knowing. As I said, he saw the movie as an entirely serious drama about somewhat desperate people trying to make it through the obstacles of their day [it hold up very well that way], and we talked about whether it is right for a white person to laugh about that. I felt that since this is a movie made by black people affectionately ribbing black people, I felt it invited us to laugh along. He wasn’t so sure, because when one gives vent to laughter at these people, is it just a vent for one’s racism? I don’t know the answer, but the film does operate in this area—to a white person.

I definitely admire the writing in this movie. Again, I always admire pieces that compose themselves of tiny, seemingly-insignificant exchanges that delightfully pass the time, then end by pulling the strands of all those plots together in a way that makes you realize it was deftly dropping story elements all along, just so gracefully you wouldn’t have noticed. The movie this most reminds me of is Shampoo, for that reason. We flit from amusing episode to amusing episode, barely time to notice all the slow darkening of the background, until a big finale draws it all up and brings it to the fore.

Again, I don’t know why this movie isn’t in the Criterion Collection, let alone the Smithsonian.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! I think pretty much everyone should watch this.

ROLL BOUNCE is also a nice, sweet, moving slice-of-African-American life movie, although it takes place in the 70s and plays out amongst a younger set.