As a stand-up, Eddie Griffin, the star of last summer's blaxploitation satire Undercover Brother, provokes discomfort and hilarity at the same time.
In DysFunktional Family, he's totally uninhibited about race and his own racism, sex and his own sexism, prejudice and his own prejudices. In this Kansas City, Mo., concert, edited together with cutaways to man-in-the-street interviews and talks with Griffin's family and friends in his old K.C. neighborhood, Griffin takes the stage without any glitz or hype. Wiry and wired, neither holier nor unholier-than-thou, he presents himself as nothing more than an honest man who can be wrong and a ferocious individualist who believes that others share at least some of his views.
He builds upset as well as laughter into his audience's response. When he goes into a number on American unity after 9/11, he doesn't just remark on the sudden acceptance he feels as a black man. He admits his sudden understanding of racial profiling, and sets off civil-liberty alarms in our heads when, after saying he could catch bin Laden himself, he merrily calls out, "Hey, Osama" to a passer-by in a turban. Griffin isn't advocating Arab-bashing; he's proving how ridiculous our delusions of potency can be. Even when his material is over-the-border offensive (and, of course, he uses street curses as frequently as "a" and "the"), it's part of a gnarly, riotous process of one man coming to terms with untouched-up reality. After all, he says, his new feeling of being as American as any white person lasted about 30 days.
Although Griffin rambles far and wide in topics and chronology, the title DysFunktional Family speaks to the core of his comedy. If he and the director, George Gallo, hadn't decided to include footage of his mother and two of his uncles, audiences would not realize how rooted his stories are in literal truth, whether he's riffing on his mother beating him or her thief-pimp-junkie brother raising him. (Griffin's father abandoned the family.) And the misspelling of "dysfunctional" isn't merely whimsical.
Griffin does put the funk back into family, whether it's functional or dys-. He's devoted to his mother partly because she whipped him with belts and switches and even tried to run him over with a car. He sees her actions as crime prevention rather than abuse. And he's ruthlessly unsentimental about having a family in which one uncle shoots up while kids are in the house and another is addicted to homemade porn. The heroin-craving uncle is the one who told young Eddie he could go far - though the uncle, humorously enough, now admits he was being routinely supportive. The adult Griffin says that spying on the man as he indulged his habit was for a child like watching a cartoon.
You don't expect Griffin to be a gifted physical comic. But he's at his performance peak imitating that uncle swaying in the middle of a drug high like a bamboo shoot in a typhoon. (Unlike drunks, he says, heroin addicts never lose their balance.) You don't expect Griffin to go beyond comedy-bar blue humor. But Griffin is at his most candid and independent describing his porn-loving uncle - a sexaholic who's also a neat freak - or detailing his own sexual biases. For example, he refuses to accept that any father would be proud to have a gay son - and his comically savage expressions of disbelief are as mercilessly self-revealing as they are appalling.
This take-me-as-I-am 'tude, combined with a take-no-prisoners approach to comedy accounts for Griffin's originality. A lot of his material at first seems familiar: from white folks' lack of rhythm to black folks' bitterness over slavery to the quirks and foibles of African-American celebrities. But then Griffin will juxtapose them unexpectedly - noting that Michael Jackson is moving from black to bleached to near-invisibility; he envisions the singer being set down by the United States as a secret weapon in Afghanistan.
At one point, Griffin asks his audience whether he's gone too far. Of course, he wouldn't have it any other way. In an age when light-and-easy racial farces have become mainstream hits, he remains a tough-love comedian.
Starring Eddie Griffin
Directed by George Gallo
Released by Miramax
Time 84 minutes
Sun score ***