Film offers hope in divisive times


November 08, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Strictly Business" might be called a story of brotherly love.

The brothers, of course, aren't brothers, they're brothers, Jack.

Like the equally provocative "Ricochet," the film is an examination of the divisive currents playing hob in black society today. But its warmest tone -- as opposed to the ultimately despairing and separatist "Ricochet" -- is that it offers hope. It seems to be saying, "If we can just get our stuff together we can do anything."

The "we," as the movie has it, are those blacks who've chosen to (or had the opportunity to) enter mainstream culture and those who've chosen to (or have had to) stay in black culture. It's the difference between a condo and a Harlem walk-up.

The winning Joseph C. Phillips plays Waymon Tinsdale, an up-and-coming New York real estate executive who, if he ever had a racial identity, forgot it many years ago. He thinks the brothers are all named Brooks, you dig? Why, you'd think he was Bill Cosby's son-in-law or something. He's engaged to a light-skinned woman named Dierdre who, in one of the film's more inspired lines, is described as being "as skinny as a No. 2 pencil."

Without it having to be said, the attributes of Waymon and Dierdre are "white" in the coarsest possible way and the movie isn't, alas, above stooping to stereotype as it has its fun. On the other side of its coin is "blackness," also coarsely defined, but much more positively: blackness is hip, savvy, cool, musical, knowing and sexy, and is personified by Bobby (Tommy Davidson, of the hit TV show, "In Living Color.")

Bobby's a mailroom clerk with aspirations toward moving on up in the firm. That is, if he can just show up on time once in a while. And does he have to dress like one of the boyz n the hood when he's treading the pathways of corporate America?

The movie is conceived as a double-helix of enabling: Bobby will help poor Waymon meet a young woman with whom he's instantly smitten, if in turn Waymon will help Bobby get into the executive training program. Each will help the other become what he is not.

It's Waymon's adventures in the America beyond 125th Street that give the movie its comic charge. He ducktoes around like Gregory Peck in Pee-wee Herman's little suit, and his shirt is so loaded with starch you're afraid it'll achieve spontaneous detonation: He's got no flow in the go and no snap in the rap. So when poor Waymon tries to get down in the clubs of Harlem as he zeroes in on Natalie (the beautiful Halle Berry), he's not a fish out of water, he's a brother from another planet. It's surprising he can handle the oxygen up by Lennox Avenue.

The relationship with Natalie doesn't come to much -- yes, she's beautiful, but scriptwriters Pam Gibson and Nelson George can't give the relationship any edge or uniqueness. Waymon and Natalie fall in love because it's a movie, that's why.

But the subtext of "Strictly Business" is its most interesting feature. It's a reflection of the fragility and racial paranoia with which black middle-class Americans must sense they cling to their places in society. When Waymon is sabotaged by a jealous co-worker, he's threatened with loss of everything; but worst of all, he's threatened with contamination by stereotype. The document submitted in his name fraudulently reveals him to be lazy, larcenous and stupid, a Stepin Fetchit in a starched shirt. A similar theme reverberated through "Ricochet", where evil John Lithgow reduced upstanding bourgeoise overachiever Denzel Washington to shiftless nothingness in about three seconds of screen time.

Both films conclude with a plea for cultural unity, though "Strictly Business" is more accommodating to people without melanin in their pigment. Its bad guy isn't bad because he's white but because he's bad; and the movie concludes on an uplifting surge in these tribal times, with different kinds of whites and different kinds of blacks uniting to get a job done. It's a grace note to be savored in a troubled time.

'Strictly Business'

Starring Joseph C. Phillips and Tommy Davidson.

Directed by Kevin Hooks.

Released by Warner Brothers.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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