Control Nathan Rabin: 50 Shades of Black
Control Nathan Rabin is a column where the Patreon patrons of this site vote on which of two terrible-looking films I must see and write about
As chronicled extensively here, I get a lot of things wrong. I left a preview screening of Avatar convinced I’d just watched the biggest flop of all time. I was convinced that My Big Fat Greek Wedding stood no chance of making back even its exceedingly modest budget. I was fairly certain that Trump lunatic was going to lose, and lose big, to that boring but encouragingly non-insane Hillary Clinton. Maybe that was Hillary’s problem: she should have gone with a blunter slogan like, “Vote Hillary! She’s not completely insane!”
But sometimes I get things right as well. Sometimes I don’t just get things right, I’m also prescient, just like that movie Network, which somehow understood that while television was terrible, it was only going to get worse! During a preview screening of Zack Snyder’s 300, for example, I was so disturbed by the hoots and howls of the ecstatic crowd that I turned to the person next to me and said, swear to God, “This film’s reception bodes ill for the future of humanity. To see blatantly Fascist aesthetics and ideology so lustily cheered by a seeming cross-section of the American moviegoing public makes me think an international surge in nationalism and xenophobia may lie in our future, and as part of this surge in nationalism and xenophobia I see some polarizing but exciting populist figure rising to power on an anti-establishment wave of outrage, even if he was dangerously unqualified, or, to cite a particularly extreme example, a conspiratorial, rage-filled reality television star with a long history of egregious sexism and racism and a disturbingly regressive, reactionary vision for our nation's future.”
That was pretty canny. And when I watched people hoot and holler and lose their goddamn mind when I saw and reviewed Scary Movie its opening weekend, I similarly felt like the movie’s extraordinary success with audiences, both in the sense of attracting large audiences, and delighting those crowds, bode ill for cinematic parodies specifically, comedy in general and society as a whole.
I was not wrong. Scary Movie was the fountainhead from which a whole lot of awfulness sprang, including the soul-crushing oeuvre of Scary Movie co-screenwriters Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, whose filmography would include such cultural nadirs as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, The Starving Games, Best Night Ever and Superfast! The movie also helped make Marlon and Shawn’s White Chicks and Little Man possible, as well as the solo features of Marlon, most notably his Paranormal Activity parody A Haunted House and A Haunted House 2 and his most recent spoof, the 50 Shades of Grey parody 50 Shades of Black.
In the latest Control Nathan Rabin poll, the sadists who contribute to the Patreon page for this site decided to not-so-erotically punish me with 50 Shades of Black over 50 Shades of Grey. This might be because while pretty much everyone has opined on 50 Shades of Grey the cultural conversation surrounding 50 Shades Of Black is nowhere near as robust. Heck, there are some academic and film journals that haven’t even covered 50 Shades of Black.
This does not mean that I won’t be professionally obligated to see 50 Shades of Grey at some point in the very near future. This just means that I can cover the most nakedly sensual American studio film since Dan Ackroyd and Rosie O’Donnell confused and aroused a nation by squeezing into tight leather for Garry Marshall and Anne Rice’s erotic masterwork Exit To Eden for Lukewarm Takes along with other movies that are culturally significant despite being total pieces of shit.
Would I have enjoyed 50 Shades of Black more if I had seen 50 Shades of Grey? Are there layers of references and in-jokes and subtle allusions or Nabokovian multi-lingual puns that flew over my head due to my lack of familiarity with 50 Shades of Grey’s satirical target? Let’s just say that it would be hard for me to enjoy the movie less.
Poor Kali Hawk, who deserves better merely by virtue of being a human being with dignity, stars in the thankless role of Hannah Steale, a college student so mousy that she shatters mirrors with her unforgivable plainness. Virginal and naive, her humdrum existence changes forever when she meets and interviews Christian Black (Marlon Wayans), a wealthy businessman with a predilection for dominance and sadomasochistic games.
At times 50 Shades Of Black intermittently depicts the title character as a shadowy, seductive figure of power like the sexy mogul he’s spoofing but the film has no internal consistency. Black is only ever what the film needs him to be for the sake of an awful gag, including, but not limited to, satirical versions of Miles Teller in Whiplash (opposite Florence Henderson’s sexually charged spoof of J.K Simmons) and Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. But mostly Black is exactly the kind of racist caricature you might find in Wayans Brothers productions like The Wayans Brothers, White Chicks, Little Man and Shawn’s humorous 1996 tome 150 Ways To Tell If You’re Ghetto.
Sure enough, not long after meeting Hannah, Christian compares her to a rhino, explaining, “You’re a lot of fatter than I thought and you have a bump on your nose that resembles a small horn.” Hannah shoots him a “You could not have just said what I think you just said?” look she sports so frequently it becomes her default expression.
Christian has an excuse to be cruel to Hannah but that doesn’t explain why the film and all of its characters have to be so consistently and persistently cruel to her as well. I could have lived, for example, without what feels like a half hour riff where Mike Epps, as Hannah’s womanizing stepfather, describes in excruciating detail how promiscuous Hannah’s mother was, how she was, in his words, a true “gutter slut” who embodied the old maxim that it takes a village to raise a child, but in Hannah’s mother’s case, “the village is a gangbang.”
Co-writer and star Wayans and director Michael Tiddes seem reluctant to cut anything Epps improvised or ad-libbed, fearing that it would represent an unforgivable crime against comedy to cut him off when he’s gushing forth jewels like, “I’ve stuck my hand in some of the nastiest bitch’s pants all over the world.”
Hannah puts up with a whole lot of shit, both from the awful, misogynist men in her life (including a platonic best friend character whose constant attempts to drug and rape his friend constitute an early running gag), and from the world as a whole.
But in what I imagine is an echo of 50 Shades Of Grey’s arc, Hannah grows more empowered, confident and assertive the more she explores the world of transgressive sexuality, a change reflected both in her progressively sexier wardrobe and the way she stands up to Black, who is a premature ejaculator with a micro-penis and an oversized pair of testicles we get to see way too much of over the course of the film.
50 Shades Of Black is powered by a joyless, dehumanizing vulgarity, a scatological sourness that’s sad and hateful rather than funny. It’s a movie without sympathy for any of its characters, but one that has special disdain for the women in it, particularly Hannah’s roommate, a white woman with a purposefully black vibe who represents a toxic combination of fat shaming, sex shaming, and sandwich shaming. All three are terrible and terribly unfunny. People should not be shamed for being fat, or for being intensely sexual, or for being fat and intensely sexual and intensely interested in devouring sandwiches. Yet 50 Shades Of Black feels the need to shame this character all the same because it is excruciatingly uncomfortable with sex, and women, and large women, and large women having sex, and women in general.
Watching the film’s intense discomfort involving pretty much all forms of sex, but particularly anything remotely kinky or transgressive, I found myself wondering if I was watching what might be the first ever heterosexual straight panic comedy. I’ve written extensively about American comedy’s insanely ubiquitous obsession with gay panic comedy rooted in a heterosexual audience’s discomfort and awkwardness at seeing straight characters forced by circumstances to engage in sexual practices historically associated with homosexuals.
Don’t worry, 50 Shades Of Black has its share of jokes involving stuff like a comically oversized dildo being rammed up its titular anti-hero’s ass but it has the same level of discomfort and awkwardness regarding heterosexual sex as it does homoerotic, or gay activities. Gay, straight, kinky, vanilla: if it’s sex, 50 Shades Of Black thinks it’s gross and icky, but is fatally unable to convert that juvenile belief in the yuckiness of sex into humor.
Nevertheless, I believe in giving credit where credit is due. So I would like single out the two semi-amusing moments in 50 Shades Of Black. The first is a split second sight gag that has the distinction of being the only sight gag in the movie that’s not egregiously terrible. In it, Marlon struts around as a male stripper in a Magic Mike parody and his seed is so potent that when he grinds against a woman, she instantly becomes pregnant, leading him to hand over a big, cartoonish bag reading “Child support.” It’s almost a Looney Tunes type sight gag and while it’s more amusing than funny, I did find myself enjoying something in 50 Shades of Black. That was a pleasant surprise.
In the film’s other successful gag, late in the film Christian tries to speak from the heart, but Hannah immediately identifies what he’s saying as dialogue from, in quick succession, Radio, Jerry Maguire and Snow Dogs. You half expect a Jerry Maguire reference in a movie like this. It’s an incredibly hack reference, but extending Christian’s weird fixation on Cuba Gooding Jr. to include both Radio (also kind of a hack reference, but less so than Jerry Maguire) and Snow Dogs is genuinely inspired, and one of a handful of reminders that Marlon Wayans is capable of being funny onscreen.
But the 92 weirdly clever seconds described above do not forgive the abysmal 92 minutes of hateful, DOA comedy surrounding them. I didn’t watch 50 Shades of Black so much as I suffered through it. As befits a comedy about sadomasochism, 50 Shades of Black is all pain, zero pleasure.
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