Somewhere out there, there have to be the minutes of the pitch meeting that created this film. Or, if not that, maybe there’s a recording somewhere, some piece of evidence taken by a wary Sony executive assistant horrified at what was about to happen to one of Sidney Poitier’s most culturally significant films of the 1960s. I’d actually give my soul to see the folks at Screen Rant cover this because, boy, what a misfire.
At some point between 2003 and 2004, some very misguided men (likely white men) thought that what would be hilarious, what the zeitgeist needed at that moment, was a new Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher vehicle. And, so far, I’m on board. Around this time, Bernie Mac, one of comedy’s best, is finally getting his due.
The Bernie Mac Show is on its third and fourth seasons, and the Spike Lee-directed The Original Kings of Comedy is a staple in every Black home. So far, I like this idea. And, as far as Ashton Kutcher goes, great! The kids love Punk’d! It’s on the still-relevant cable channel MTV, and he’s the pretty boy from That 70s Show, a sitcom just getting into its stride. On paper, a film with these two as the leads sounds great.
But then they had to go and pitch the content.
Maybe it’s because the film is from the early aughts — in my opinion, one of the strangest times in movie history — that executives felt this was the way to continue the legacy of 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Granted, that older film isn’t perfect. Sidney Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice is nearly too perfect, too much of what Paul Mooney once called “the Perfect Negro.” But they released the film at a time when a Supreme Court decision striking down miscegenation laws as unconstitutional was still months-old.
You could make the argument that if the writing in that film was a bit more simplistic, lacking in greyscale morality and characters, it’s because the decades leading up to it saw people literally dying for even having been perceived as having an attraction outside their race. Its simplicity borders on propagandistism, but I don’t use that word disparagingly: “propaganda” is information made to help or hurt an institution. If the institution is de jure segregation, I’m all for propaganda against it.
This is all to say, I’m not sure what they were fighting against in 2005.
Maybe it’s all that “reverse racism” I’ve been hearing about. The film has Black director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Snowfall, This is Us) at the helm, but it’s based on a screenplay and story by three white guys. Not to be reverse racist, but when I hear that, I get nervous. In fact, it makes me think that is why the film’s racial message ends up being “‘racism’ is baggage on all sides, man. Black or white, we’re all human, dude.” Now, dear reader, I’m not against that message in theory, but “theory” is why I’m wary of it.
The film doesn’t explore why an older Black man might be upset that his daughter is dating a white man. It doesn’t mind Mac’s character for any reason behind his discrimination (yes, discrimination, not “racism,” but that’s another article). It seems to present his reasoning as more cyclical than anything: Black man doesn’t want his daughter dating a white man because Black man doesn’t want his daughter dating a white man.
Then again, I may be asking too much of a movie that uses Luigi Boccherini’s Minuetto to show that some place or other is “fancy.”
And, of course, I can never fully hate anything that has a lot of Bernie Mac. Even when he’s playing an overbearing, lowkey-homophobic, supremely patriarchal guy, he brings enough charm to the role that we crave endless scenes with him. When he thinks a taxi driver played by Mike Epps is Theresa’s (Zoe Saldaña) boyfriend, I’m laughing at how well Bernie Mac can keep a poker face telling Kutcher’s character to put the bags by the front door (“That’s that square with a hole. Look inside, you’ll see furniture. Thank youuu.”) He reminds us why he really was one of the original kings of comedy.
Where the film works best is when it concerns duplicity in relationships. Outright untruths or lying by omission tend to be the cause of most of the movie’s conflicts. Mac’s character is annoyed his daughter’s boyfriend is white, but he’s more upset that she kept it from them. Kutcher’s character creates nearly all of his relationship problems because he can’t simply tell the truth.
He hides the fact that he’s quit his job, even though the reason he quit is that his firm’s executives didn’t approve of his interracial relationship. He lies about having worked in a NASCAR pit crew because he wants to show he’s been involved in sports in one way or another. Between this and the Bush administration’s shenanigans, I’m starting to think the Black Eyed Peas’ “Don’t Lie” was the political treatise 2005 needed.
Ultimately, Guess Who is fine. Not groundbreaking, not even grossly offensive, just fine. Throw it on in the background as you do some Saturday morning housekeeping. Watch it with your friends and make a drinking game out of every time someone tells an easily remedied lie. Stream it just to get a reminder of how great Bernie Mac was.
Just do yourself a favor and expect less. You’ll be happier you did.
Guess Who is available to stream on HBOMax.