Ladies and gentlemen, due to overwhelming popular demand and dependable antagonism: Norbit!
First, some "compare and contrast." Almost two decades ago (July 6, 1988, to be exact) Armond White wrote the following about Eddie Murphy's Coming to America in The City Sun, in a review titled "Who's Coming Out of Africa? The Man Who Lost His Roots!" (later reprinted in The Resistance). Bear with us:
Murphy pretends to bring to pop culture insider details of Black experience: manners and dialects that he dredges up with specious authority, always falsifying or excluding their socio-economic, psychological contexts.
Black politics, Black consciousness, has never figured in the plots of Murphy's movies, but his comic's acumen uses the idea of Black awareness in order to seem truly Black, up to date. Actually, Coming to America is a betrayal of every instance of politics, history, sex, and ethnic culture Black people have ever known. . . .
Obviously, attending an Eddie Murphy movie is nothing like attending a Black awareness rally. There's ethnic self-loathing and humiliation throughout Coming to America. Murphy's consciousness is the kind that is completely detached from political action. He's a casualty, I would guess, of that period of arrested social advancement for Black people -- the aftershock of the civil rights movement -- the 1970s. In that period the predominant Black cultural figure was not a politician or demonstrator but the superficially, stereotypically ethnic icons of Blaxploitation movies and television sitcoms. As part of the TV generation, Murphy doesn't connect being Black with social injustice or political struggle. For him all Black life is vaudeville. . . .
Take this ignorance and insensitivity and add it to Murphy's undeniable talent for mimicry, his comic timing and wit, and what you get is a showbiz atrocity. As a showbiz kid, Murphy has adopted the "Black consciousness" of white ideology: Murphy sees and comments upon Black people, life, and experience in ways and terms that the mainstream readily understands and that, I fear, make Black people tolerable to whites so that they won't be surprised by Blacks and won't have to fear them or respect them.
Unlike Richard Pryor, Murphy does not make humor about how we are all foolish, ambitious, shy, neurotic, horny, greedy, and human. He confirms how Black people really are the stereotypes their enemies have always claimed. This may be New Age Blackness, which accepts denigration by others. After all, one does not make movies that gross an average of $75 million . . . by appealing only to the interests of a minority audience.
And now, only last week in the New York Press:
It’s not the ethnic and gender stunts that prove Murphy’s ingenuity. He has learned (perhaps from Jerry Lewis’ example) to place his gift for mimickry [sic] in an appealing context. Norbit takes place in a fairytale setting, an All-American burg called Boiling Springs that combines the small-town settings of It’s a Wonderful Life, Back to the Future and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (the name Norbit is no doubt derived from Eddie Bracken’s Norbert) for a spoof on American gentility which Murphy then integrates with explosive caricatures. It’s a democratizing impulse, less hostile than the Wayans Brothers’ satire Little Man but not far from that underappreciated film’s skepticism about American complaisance. Both Norbit and Little Man express how black comics self-consciously relate to ideas of normalcy. Here, Murphy’s gender/ethnic split embraces a sense of freakishness because Norbit, Rasputia and Mr. Wong are all, also, on a realistic continuum. We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types. . . .
It’s significant that Murphy has moved past the family quandary of The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps (where he was at his most brilliant) into an area of sly social commentary. When Mr. Wong querulously says “Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!” it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused.
Murphy responds to post-Dave Chappelle self-insult comedy with a better, more experienced sense of self-awareness (that is, self respect). Norbit is the meek part of Murphy, yet he wears a perfectly spherical Afro (like the teens in TV’s “What’s Happening”) that is like a halo of blackness—a nostalgic affection for his own youth. And don’t get angry at Norbit’s attempt to off his ogre-wife; its precedents recall Walter Mitty performing the Martha Rayes scenes of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Not misogynist, just a funny function of a frustrated id. Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage. Dig the name, Rasputia. It’s a satirical ghetto moniker that brilliantly suggests a blinkered awareness of the non-black world; a joke worthy of Murphy’s terrific animated TV series “The PJs.”
How the mighty have fallen, not only in terms of basic sensitivity but in terms of critical insight. And this from the man once considered the leading African-American film and culture critic. Sad, really. If any current Armond White review demonstrates the self-willed blindness he's effected in order to place himself in uncomplicated opposition to the critical majority, no matter how weak his own reasoning or how off the mark his points, this is it. We'll talk more about it later.