In an unforgettable scene from the 1981 Richard Pryor film “Bustin’ Loose,” Pryor’s character, Joe, stomps through the woods in the middle of a torrential downpour after the school bus he’d been driving gets stuck in the mud. As he mutters under his breath, Joe walks right into the path of a Ku Klux Klan march (complete with flaming torches), but is so angry he doesn’t break stride.
Moments later, after convincing the group’s leader all the children on the bus are blind and are on the way to a hospital to receive surgery, Joe’s put-on works, and the hooded men agree to help get the bus back on its way. In a final gesture, Joe kisses one of the racists right on the mouth, Bugs Bunny style, and the KKK are spattered with mud as the scene concludes.
I’m not surprised stand-up comedian Mike Epps, best known for following Chris Tucker’s breakout performance in the 1995 hit “Friday” by co-starring with straight man Ice Cube in the less popular (but funnier) sequels, has been chosen to play Pryor in an upcoming biopic of the revolutionary comic giant. I’m also not surprised that Epps’ current leading man vehicle, the comedy-horror hybrid “Meet The Blacks,” has been met with near-universal disapproval from audiences and critics. It’s exactly the kind of fearless material Pryor would have loved to have gotten away with in his day.
Opening with a public service announcement from Snoop Dogg in whiteface and a blonde wig, “Meet The Blacks” follows family man Carl Black (Epps) as he moves his wife (Zulay Henao), two children (Alex Henderson and Bresha Webb), and creepy cousin Cronut (Lil Duval) into a Beverly Hills mansion. Before the Blacks can even get unpacked, President El Bama (George Lopez) shows up on television to announce that the annual “purge” — a period of 12 hours in which all crime is completely legal — will commence that evening. Certain such a thing would not apply to a nice, ritzy neighborhood, Carl takes a flippant attitude toward the danger, even when his new neighbors are seen loading their shotguns and polishing their chain saws.
Rather than taking the goofier, more accessible parody route popularized by the “Scary Movie” franchise, “Meet the Blacks” alternates between humor and suspense in a way audiences aren’t quite used to, proving a perfect fit for Epps’ dynamic performance style. Though it starts out silly enough, the film builds to an intense and frightening climax, using jokes as a means to further the manic, disorienting tone throughout. During one chaotic moment, Epps also comes face to face the Klan, only to discover that some of his fellow homeowners (including comedian Paul Mooney, who co-wrote many of Pryor’s albums) are under the hoods.
Since its release a week ago, I’ve read reviews that branded “Meet the Blacks” everything from being just plain bad to accusations of racism. Even those who consider themselves fans of Epps seem to be put off by its high wire act of laughs and violence, and don’t really know how to process what they saw. I contend the film handles its subject matter more responsibly than most movies of its kind, and is only guilty of doing its job a little too well for viewers to handle. By refusing to be dumb, “Meet the Blacks” is actually much smarter than its peers, and more interesting than the “Purge” series it satirizes. Given that “Bustin’ Loose” is even more shocking now than it was back in the ’80s, the reaction to both of these films proves that audiences still have an expectation-based comfort zone they’re not quite ready to exit.
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