Control Nathan Rabin: Slam Dunk Ernest
I have a bit of a strange confession to make. I could be wrong, but before the kind-hearted sadists who vote on Control Nathan Rabin—the column where I give this site’s Patreon donors an opportunity to choose between two torments I must see, then write about—decided I should see Slam Dunk Ernest, I don’t think I ever saw an Ernest movie.
That would not be strange for most folks. After all, unless you’re a child, or feeble-minded, why subject yourself to the hillbilly comedy stylings of the late American dialect comedian Jim Varney? Then again, I have made a career out of subjecting myself to things objectively considered terrible, and since the late 1980s, Ernest P. Worrell has reigned as one of the least respected names in terrible entertainment.
Forty-one years of Ernest-free living came to an end today, as I yielded to the wishes of my Patreon donors and saw 1995’s Slam Dunk Ernest, the eighth (eighth!) film in the Ernest series over Like Mike 2: Streetball, the rejected option, which I am going to assume is the second entry in the Like Mike saga. I did not have high hopes for Slam Dunk Ernest, needless to say, but at the very least I expected it to be less racially problematic and/or straight-out racist than 1997’s Ernest Goes to Africa, the ninth film in the Ernest series, which ended on an incongruously dour note with Werner Herzog’s 1999 manifesto Ernest Contemplates The Universe’s Angry Silence and His Own Inexorable Descent Into Madness.
1995’s Slam Dunk Ernest casts Varney as sweet-faced, big-grinning simpleton Ernest P. Worrell, a janitor for a crew called “Clean Sweep.” Except for Ernest, Clean Sweep consists exclusively of forty-year-old African-American janitors who are all inexplicably pro-level basketball players despite making their living mopping floors.
Slam Dunk Ernest unrelentingly highlights the racial elements of basketball to a perverse and distracting degree. When the all-black janitorial squad rejects Ernest’s attempts to be part of their professional-level team, they explicitly tell him, “You’re whiter than white. You’re a redneck!”
Ernest is undeterred. He tries to win over his dismissive teammates with a philosophical deconstruction of basketball, gushing, “It’s like a romance with the ball. It’s like a dance with the hoop” before bragging, “I’m a player. I’m a jock. I’m in the zone”, which is what I say to myself every time I sit down at my laptop.
Yes, Ernest is straight up trying to kick it with the “soul brothers” but he’s such a clueless cracker that when they tell him that he’s straight up “trippin’” for thinking he can play on such a competitive level, he insists, “I’m not ‘tripping’!” I’m on solid ground.” Ernest wants so badly to be part of this team of muscular Nubian Gods that he’s willing to act as a cheerleader.
There’s an unmistakable aspect of interracial homoeroticism throughout Slam Dunk Ernest’s early scenes. Ernest clearly worships and envies these beautiful, powerful black bodies and wants to be part of that world, but he’s hopelessly separated from his coworkers by his geekiness, by his inability to “ball” and also his ineffable whiteness, a whiteness that is referenced and mocked constantly.
There is a sense that while Ernest cannot express these sentiments outwardly, that he lusts for the transgressive thrill of a black man’s touch yet clumsily and unconvincingly sublimates these urges into rooting for a janitorial exhibition team harder than any man has ever rooted for one before.
Then one day this genial white moron is visited by the Arc-Angel of basketball, who is played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a role that doesn’t quite jibe with his current role as an activist, author, public intellectual, Trump critic, author, novelist and exemplar of African-American dignity ,integrity and self-respect.
The Arc-Angel of basketball gives Ernest a pair of magical basketball shoes and admonishes an overjoyed Ernest not to “misuse the shoes.” Now you’d imagine that a movie with a title like Slam Dunk Ernest would only need a gimmick like magical flying shoes to fulfill its goal of amusing easily entertained morons for 92 minutes. Yet Slam Dunk Ernest keeps adding layer upon layer of artifice.
It’s not enough for Ernest to be gifted magical basketball shoes by an angel. No, the magical basketball shoes have to be sentient and squeak and have a mind of their own. For part of its duration, Slam Dunk Ernest is a country-fried take on All of Me, with Varney wrestling (or rather, wrasslin') with a pair of fantastical basketball shoes that sometimes seem to be headed in two different directions. The rest of the time the magical basketball shoes don’t make any sounds and do exactly what Ernest wants or needs them to do at any given moment, whether that's cleaning a mall with superhuman speed or winning basketball games.
Ah, but there’s so much more going on, plot-wise, all it violently unnecessary. We’ve got an angel in Jabbar’s Arc-Angel so of course we need a demon representing Satan to battle for Ernest’s eternal soul. Slam Dunk Ernest gives us one in the form of Mr. Zamiel Moloch, a demon Jay Brazeau plays as an ominous white man who looks a little like Super Mario if Mario were a pedophile accountant.
It’s not enough for the Arc-Angel of Basketball and a demon to fight for Ernest’s soul. Those clearly aren’t high enough stakes for fucking Slam Dunk Ernest so the movie introduces Quincy Worth, an impressionable young African-American child for what I like to think of as the Raisin in the Sun portion of the film.
To offset the fact that Slam Dunk Ernest revolves around a literal Magical Negro in the form of Jabbar’s angel, and also a team of black janitors who are all pro-level basketball players, Slam Dunk Ernest devotes numerous scenes to a joke-free, painfully earnest subplot where Barry Worth (Cylk Cozart), Quincy’s hard-working and dignified janitor father, tries to impress his son and set him on a moral path despite having a job that doesn’t command much in the way of money or respect from the culture at large.
Moloch, the undercover demon, tries to tempt Quincy by convincing him that a pair of 250 dollar shoes—identical to the ones that not only allow Ernest to play at his best but also give him super-human powers—will give him the competitive edge he needs when it’s really all about teamwork and hard work and trying your best, rather than relying on magic. Slam Dunk Ernest is ultimately a morality play. You'll never guess where it ultimately comes down on key issues like hard work and teamwork and also trying your best.
Even after Ernest is given magical shoes that allow him to run faster than any human being in existence and also fly twenty feet in the air—things that somehow don’t even make the local news—he still passes extensively and his team still wins because, as I established earlier, this team of 40 year old black janitors are as good as the Harlem Globetrotters, even without their caucasian mascot’s magic shoes.
He’s a good-hearted soul who just wants to lead his team to victory and win the heart of Mrs. Erma Terradiddle. At first, Ernest’s crush has a mousy, librarian vibe but after she’s seduced by Mr. Zamiel Moloch with the promise of a winning lottery ticket she turns into a belly-dancing sexpot who serves as her new boyfriend’s hype woman, describing him as “The blizzard of the backboard, the alpha omega of the hoop world”, and then, once again returning to the subject of race, “the hardest working cracker in basketball.”
I try to single out moments of genuine inspiration in even the most deplorable horse shit so I will admit here that the glorious excess of Ernest being deemed “the blizzard of the backboard” and “the alpha and omega of the hoop world” amused me even if the “hardest working cracker” part once again felt like race entering the equation for no good reason at all.
After being seduced by Mr. Zamiel Moloch’s lies and deceit, Ernest sports a look of infinite self-satisfaction and wears a silver outfit with a Plan 9 From Outer Space-style cape that’s about the least practical basketball playing garb imaginable. Then again, Slam Dunk Ernest also features the whole pre-Ernest Clean Sweep team slam dunking in their work jeans. Slam Dunk Ernest doesn’t know much about basketball apparel. Then again, Slam Dunk Ernest doesn’t seem to know much about basketball either.
When those “Everything wrong with (X) bad movie” videos finally get around to Slam Dunk Ernest, they will have a field day. For starters, Goal Tending Ernest would be a more appropriate title because once he acquires his magic-shoes-skills he spends most of the rest of the movie goal-tending, something that no one points out, just as no one points out that it’s curious, if not inexplicable, that a middle-aged white man with no apparent athletic skills suddenly runs faster and jumps higher than any one in existence.
But it goes beyond that. Slam Dunk Ernest is downright ignorant about the fundamental of basketball. I’m no expert, but I know enough about the rules of b-ball to know that you are not allowed to use ping pong paddles in a regulation game and also that if a “shot” goes out of bounds and hits the top of an R&B DJ’s head, as Ernest’s ostensibly game-winning shot does here, then the “score” can’t possibly be deemed legitimate.
Slam Dunk Ernest failed to entertain me, despite its preponderance of sped-up footage and bug-eyed flailing. But it did teach me a lot, and Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place is nothing if not educational. I learned, for example, that most black people are employed as janitors but they’re also really, really good at basketball. That’s true of every black person in the film. I also learned that soul brothers say things like, “My Nubian sister has a voice from heaven”, “That’s serious biz, homie” and “Ernest has got it going on!” The lives of African-Americans are difficult, since they’re apparently all janitors. But sometimes, if black people work very hard at thankless jobs, a moronic white person with special powers will come along to save them. And isn't that really what America is all about?
So while Slam Dunk Ernest probably wasn’t created to explore the state of the black man in America, I think that will be its legacy, and while I fully intend to never waste more time with another Ernest movie again, I am tempted to check out Ernest Goes to Africa, since I hear it chronicles what happens when the brother man goes to the Motherland. And, if Slam Dunk Ernest is any indication, it will be among the most “woke” films of its time.
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