It’s too bad that a fresh, smart, and courageous look at the conflicts African-Americans feel about racist stereotypes that sometimes feel more real to them then they would like to admit gets lost in a a tired and lazy script littered with poop jokes and dope jokes and clueless whitey jokes in “The Cookout.” It’s the story of a young basketball player who gets a pro contract and has to deal with a greedy girlfriend, jealous relatives, and terrified neighbors in his wealthy new neighborhood. It’s “The Jeffersons” crossed with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” only gross and raunchy.
Todd (Storm P) is a good kid from a strong and loving middle class family who becomes the number one draft pick for New Jersey’s pro basketball team. Even though the contract has not been signed, he gets so excited about the prospect of a multi-million dollar contract that he happily buys gifts for his parents (Jennifer Lewis as Em and Frankie Faison as JoJo) and his girlfriend, Brittany (Meagan Good) and a huge house in an exclusive gated community. And the family plans a big cookout party to celebrate.
Todd’s agent (Jonathan Silverman) reminds him that he doesn’t actually have the money yet. So they set up an interview for an endorsement deal and of course it’s very important that Todd make a good impression as a reliable and mature spokesperson. But darned if the interview and the cookout don’t happen on the same day, with the white lady in the businesslike suit arriving just before all of the wild and wacky relatives.
That would include the cracker brothers who arrive with a dead deer. When told that it’s dripping brains on the floor, they explain, “That’s our home-made Slip ‘n’ Slide!” Then of course the lady in the suit comes in and slips on it. And we also have the sassy cousin who’s out to snag a basketball player to be daddy to her several out-of-wedlock babies. And the hugely overweight twins who are perpetually baked on marijuana. There’s also a cousin who’s got a conspiracy theory to explain why bigotry is the reason for just about everything and Em’s jealous sister, who wants her son to play pro ball instead of going to medical school.
Todd’s new neighbors are so skittish that the adults recoil in horror and the children shriek when they see a black family moving in. Most hysterical of all is Mrs. Crowley (Farrah Fawcett!) who screams, “I saw some NEGROES!” and races into the house to tell her husband, a black man who appears to have just about convinced himself and everyone else that he is white.
The movie’s willingness to poke fun at black-on-black bigotry provides its few sharp moments, even more welcome because it is the only humor that is understated, the point powerful enough that it does not have to be amplified. There are offhand comments about “good” hair and the black characters are just as likely to assume the worst stereotypes about each other as the white characters are. The community security guard (Queen Latifah, who also produced the film) may be black, but she is just as bigoted as the residents are. When she sees Todd and his agent together, she assumes Todd is mugging him. We even see a glimpse of sheepish embarrassment and confusion from characters who are educated and financially successful about relatives who conform to stereotypes (the lazy dopers, the man who blames white prejudice for his own failures, the woman with children by several different men). All the more reason, then, that the movie’s own willingness to exploit the most blatently bigoted stereotypes for the cheapest possible humor is so disappointing.
Meagan Good, who lit up her one small corner of You Got Served, gives her gold-digger a nice bimbo squeal, and Jenifer Lewis’ dry delivery gives some snap to even third-rate dialogue. Queen Latifah’s rent-a-cop may make the Keystone Kops look subtle, but she is a real movie star and always watchable.
Parents should know that the movie has drug humor. Marijuana use, including driving while high, is portrayed as endearing and cute, even empowering. Characters drink and smoke. Characters use strong language and double entendres. There are other sexual references, including a character who has had many children out of wedlock with different fathers and some crude talk about the anatomy of a man’s wife. There is also some mild violence, including a gun used threateningly, but it is never fired. Racial prejudice is a theme of the movie. While it deserves credit for raising some issues of prejudice within the African-American community, it unfortunately also exploits and perpetuates the stereotypes it tries to expose, including an over-the-top portrayal of gay characters. A character wears a dress that she plans to return, a form of theft.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that the Andersons supported each other even when they did not always respect each other and even when they were not successful. Why was Em’s sister so competitive? They should also talk about how and why even hoped-for changes like money and success can create problems. If you suddenly got a lot of money, what would you spend it on? How do the “three F’s” play a role in your home? What do you like to eat at cookouts?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Friday (mature material). They might want to look at other movies about parties that get a little out of control like Blake Edwards’ The Party (inspired by the brilliant party scene in his Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Bachelor Party with Tom Hanks. Those looking for something with more depth and meaning should see Hoop Dreams, the brilliant documentary about two teenagers hoping to break out of poverty by playing basketball.