In the 70s, the Black Man stood strong and proud, putting the groove on pop culture at large with super cool big screen icons like Dolemite and Shaft and artists like James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire funking up the music scene. But then, slowly but surely, the Black Man was made into a non-threatening joke again by the Urkels and the Mr Ts and the Fresh Princes,. Unfortunate coincidence? Not according to this adaptation of the online cartoon series “Undercover Brother”, which has a mysterious figure known as the Man working hard to preserve Caucasian domination. Good thing the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. is there to fight for “Truth, Justice and the Afro-American Way”! The film revolves around how Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), who embodies black empowerment from his platform shoes to his afro, is recruited by the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to stop the Man’s latest scheme: using mind control drugs to turn black presidential candidate General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams doing a thinly veiled Colin Powell impression) into an embarrassing racial caricature running a chain of fried chicken joints…
This all sounds funny, and it sort of is, but overall “Undercover Brother” is a hit and miss affair. Director Malcolm D. Lee (Spike’s cousin) gives the film a colorful and stylish look, with plenty of great funky music, cheesy use of retro visual tricks like freeze frames and split screens, but the comedy just ain’t that good. I smiled a lot during the movie but laughed only occasionally, and never hysterically. The racial humour gets repetitive and predictable, and it’s often more concerned taking easy digs at dated black and white stereotypes than in trying to be incisive.
There are some inspired moments, like when Undercover Brother poses as mild-mannered Anton Jackson, who wears sweaters and loafers, speaks white and avoids any aggressive black behaviour. Brother ends up starting to like this life of blending in, especially with how he gets to sleep with a white woman (Denise Richards), “the black man’s kryptonite”! I also enjoyed the supporting cast, be it the hilarious Dave Chappelle as the paranoid Conspiracy Brother, Chris Kattan as the racist villain who struggles against his inner love of black culture or Neil Patrick Harris as a B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. intern who decries discrimination against white people!
Yet as hard as “Undercover Brother” tries to be a black “Austin Powers”, it lacks the demented brilliance of a guy like Mike Myers. In fact, Eddie Griffin might be the weakest thing about the film. He’s got the afro, but not the attitude of blaxploitation heroes. I’d say that this is also the problem of the movie as a whole: it looks like soul cinema, but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s really just another spy movie spoof in different clothes, an enjoyable but forgettable diversion.