Saturday, May 9, 2020

BETTING ON BLACK - "BOOMERANG" (1992): CHANGING THE WORLD CAN BE HILARIOUS BUSINESS - by CEJ



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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



BOOMERANG 

Dir. by - Reginald Hudlin 
Prod. by - Brian Grazer, Warrington Hudlin  
Screenplay - Barry Blaustein, 
David Sheffield
Story by - Eddie Murphy 
Director of Photography - 
Woody Omens
Edited by - Earl Watson, 
John Carter, Michael Jablow 
Production Design - 
Jane Musky
Music - Marcus Miller
Run Time: 117 mins.  
Release: 7/1/1992

Production Companies - Imagine Entertainment, Eddie Murphy Productions
Dist. by - Paramount Pictures

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)
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     Uh huh! I can hear the voices already - "Yeah, BOOMERANG's a funny movie and all, maybe even a damn good one; but the 'Changing the world' thing is a bit much, isn‘t it?". Well, ... not really. Now, hear me out. I remember a couple of occasions, both many years ago when I worked at a large Philadelphia video store. One was when after years and years a co-worker finally saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and another when someone else (or it may have even been the same person, I don‘t remember) finally saw THE FRENCH CONNECTION. And both reactions were "Yeah, it's a good movie, BUT ...!". In the case of BUTCH & SUNDANCE the "but" was "... it's really just another buddy movie, though, isn't it?" and with THE CONNECTION it was " … ultimately just another gritty cop flick".

Director Reginald Hudlin / 2017

     My response to both were, "You're overlooking the fact that this genre didn't really exists as we now know it until ..." the aforementioned BUTCH & SUNDANCE and CONNECTION. For, while both were indeed damn good movies upon their initial releases, ... and critically acclaimed and the whole nine yards, yadda yadda, ... the passage of time went on to etch their respective places in cinema history as ultimately much more. They became benchmarks or touchstones - certainly in relation to the films which would follow in their wake. And only the passage of time can reveal a particular film as such. I  mean, hell, look today at 48HRS., LETHAL WEAPON, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE or whatever, and you can almost see the umbilical - pumping blood, oxygen and everything else - leading right back to the prenatal womb which is BUTCH & SUNDANCE.

     And, while (duh?) police procedural films certainly existed before THE FRENCH CONNECTION, most were either very noirish or at the very least highly stylized. Even films like BULLITT and SHAFT were very slick, cool and fashion conscious. But after CONNECTION crime films were given visual and tonal license to be down & dirty and realistically near pseudo-documentary profane (see the soon to follow THE TAKING OF PELHAM, REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER and SERPICO); and they began to take place more and more in that “grey area” landscape where there existed a very thin line between the psychology of the cops and the crooks. And in this regard think of the later PRINCE OF THE CITY, BLACK RAIN, TO LIVE & DIE IN L.A. and others.

Changing the cinematic vernacular:
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969 / top),
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971 / bottom)  

     Similarly, while it may be hard to remember almost (Wow!) 30 yrs. later!!!, Reginald Hudlin's BOOMERANG was very much a similar (what I like to call) "fulcrum shift" film. In this case it was a game-changer in the acceptance by a major studio of African-American characters in a film by an African-American director which became a mainstream hit for that studio. Now, does being a financial hit make a film a classic or "fulcrum shift" pivot point? Of course not. But (and this is the really important part here) BOOMERANG's success would help to insure that other such mainstream films would be made by other African-American directors in the future. Films like Forest Whitaker's WAITING TO EXHALE, Malcolm Lee's THE BEST MAN and all the way up to Tim Story's BARBERSHOP - wherein the lives and lifestyles of workaday African-Americans (and not just super cops or young people attempting to escape the horrors of the 'hood) became known to the rest of the world. Now, while this may also be hard to remember, this was not always the case. Yeah, even as recently as 30 ago.

(L to R) WAITING TO EXHALE (1995), THE BEST MAN (1999), BARBERSHOP (2002)

     Keep in mind that when it comes to color, … and while there is still (I mean, let's be realistic) more than a fair share of ignorance and prejudice walking around in Hollywood's halls of power, the color which in the end most encourages or discourages the average studio isn’t necessarily black, white, red or yellow, but ultimately green … or the lack thereof. Combine that with the famous film industry axiom that "It's always easier and safer to say 'no'", and you've got the recipe as to why for far too many years far too many studios fell back on the oft repeated mythical b.s. safety net mantra that "Movies by ethnic filmmakers aren't big hits with crossover audiences".  BOOMERANG finally took that excuse (and that's all it was all along) away. 

The members of the First Artists production company -
(L to R) Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier

     What about something like Gordon Parks' SHAFT or the comedies of Sidney Poitier (UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT, LET'S DO IT AGAIN, etc.)? Well, not to drift too far off the subject, ... though in reality it actually isn't, ... SHAFT was made by a studio - MGM - on it's last gasping breath, and during a time where many studios on the brink of receivership were trying every "Hail Mary" gambit they could think of once the small-budgeted and youth-oriented EASY RIDER knocked things outta the park.  And the Poitier films were actually the product of the First Artists production company founded by Poitier, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman specifically to make films which major studios originally didn't want to get behind - among them THE GETAWAY, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, UP THE SANDBOX and POCKET MONEY. The First Artists films (including Poitier's) were then distributed by Warner Bros., but not initiated by them.

The Eddie Murphy "Golden 80s Trifecta" of (L to R) 48HRS. (1982),
BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984), COMING TO AMERICA (1988)

     Moving later down the line some might point (as did many studio execs back then) to the huge piles of green raked in by earlier Eddie Murphy films like COMING TO AMERICA, the aforementioned 48HRS. and BEVERLY HILLS COP as examples of "black films" which beat BOOMERANG to the punch in that regard. But a) the Murphy characters in those films were more highly stylized, tropish and / or very genre-based - which is to say not realistic, ... or even as in the case of COMING TO AMERICA a deliberate fairy-tale concoction of sorts. And b) all of those films were (and, yeah, I know I’m running the chance of getting into potentially sticky ground here, but this is very important) by white filmmakers. In fact it was this particular aspect which made many studio execs at the time feel the films were safer and less risky. 

     No! I don't hold with the belief that only people of color should make films about people of color, or that films about any people should only be made by a filmmaker from that same group of people. But I do believe a member of a particular group can often bring to a film a great many more little known insights and observations which someone not of that group can bring. Insights and minute cultural details (of both small and large significance), the existence of which the non-group person may not even be aware.

(top) SMOKE SIGNALS (1998 / dir. - Chris Eyre),
(bottom) THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (2010 / dir. - Lisa Cholodenko)

     As such / and for example one of the many great things Clint Eastwood's FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006) does is to paint a vivid portrait of a Native American (real life Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, portrayed by Adam Beach) caught between ethnic assimilation and racial prejudice in America. But Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre's 1998 film SMOKE SIGNALS (also starring Adam Beach) does it even better, ... and with a great deal of humor to boot. And while films by non LGBTQ directors like PHILADELPHIA (from Jonathan Demme) and AMERICAN BEAUTY (courtesy of Sam Mendes) feature sympathetic / positive depictions of LGBTQ characters, a film like Lisa Cholodenko's HIGH ART (1998) or THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010) feature (c’mon, let's face it) much more well rounded / people-next-door-type depictions. All of which brings us back to Reginald Hudlin's BOOMERANG. Whew!

     BOOMERANG's romantic comedy premise is fairly simple and "pick your era" malleable. So malleable in fact it's been repurposed, retro fitted, ripped off (take your pick of "r"s) countless times in numerous BET, Will Packer, Tyler Perry and other films since. In a nutshell "A Playa Gets Played ... and learns a lesson from it". Specifically in BOOMERANG Murphy portrays uber successful New York ad exec Marcus Graham - notorious for mackin' on and seducing the hottest women in the city, then loving and leaving them. Y'know, as some used to say back in the day, “He‘s all about the ‘Hit it, then git it!’”. That is until both his professional and personal lives are turned upside down when his agency is taken over by a larger corporate concern, and he finds himself working under (in more ways than one - haha!) his new superior (Robin Givens), who is very much the female version of Marcus.


     One of the many things BOOMERANG does well - and which many didn't expect - is that it refuses to be "The Two-Hour 'Eddie Murphy Comedy Hour'". While Murphy's Marcus is the central character, the film really is also something of an ensemble piece where all of the supporting players get their time in the narrative / character arc sun. They include Halle Berry - who had earlier roles in JUNGLE FEVER, STRICTLY BUSINESS and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, but who here burst forever into the hearts of an entire generation; Martin Lawrence, David Allen Grier, the aforementioned Givens, Grace Jones (and who the hell knew beforehand that she could be such a great comedienne, here spoofing Grace Jones?!), legendary actor / choreographer Geoffrey Holder, Eartha Kitt, Tisha Campbell (who'd later co-star with Lawrence in his long running tv series) and the irrepressible John Witherspoon ("You've got to co-ooordinate!").


     A young Chris Rock even gets in a few great lines as a mail room worker desperate to hustle his way up the company ranks. And there’s a hilariously loving shout-out to barrier breaking African-American director Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) as a film editor who partakes in an Abbott & Costello-like verbal routine over whether or not a piece of footage contains a view of a woman’s nipple or just the shadow of one. Haha!

Among BOOMERANG's legendary "Old Guard":
(L to R) Eartha Kitt, Geoffrey Holder, John Witherspoon, Melvin Van Peebles

     By the way, in case that murderer’s row cast line-up didn’t tip you off, BOOMERANG is in some respects very much a loving cinematic passing of the mantle from an earlier group of barrier-breaking black artists (Kitt, Holder, Witherspoon, Van Peebles, et al) to the (then) young up-and-coming one charged with carrying on their legacy. In retrospect today it is now also a bittersweet passing of that mantle as within that group of older artists all but Van Peebles have since passed away.

Among BOOMERANG's (at the time) up-and-coming "New Guard":
(L to R) Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, David Alan Grier, Tisha Campbell

     While contemporary and R-rated, director Hudlin wanted to pattern BOOMERANG after the smooth old-school vibe of a Cary Grant film ... with a dash of Truffaut's JULES AND JIM inherent in the love triangle between Murphy, Berry and Grier. And as such - filmed in New York during the winter months, y'know, so the cast can cut striking images in those bad-assed winter coats - everything from BOOMERANG's cinematography (courtesy of Woody Omens) to production design (the legendary Jane Musky), score (by funk-jazz maestro Marcus Miller) and more screams near-James-Bond-cinematic elegance: the kind where the story's setting becomes every bit as important a character as any portrayed by the cast members. And released during the 4th Of July holiday week alongside Penny Marshall's A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (another "fulcrum shift" film deserving it's own posted piece at another time), BOOMERANG was a hit with both audiences and critics.

Hudlin and Murphy on the streets of NYC

     There were, however, a few (hey, let's call them what they were) genuinely racist digs at the film. I particularly remember one controversy which erupted at the time wherein one critic (thinking they were being witty, I guess) referred to BOOMERANG as a "fantasy film" in that it featured very successful African-American business people. Hudlin responded by pointing out how such a comment displayed the ignorance many had (and still do have) of the history of black-owned businesses and black business people in America - from ignoring or not being aware of say the Johnson's Products corporation (an inspiration for the beauty products firm which takes over Marcus' ad agency), to the legendary Madam C.J. Walker - the first black female millionaire in America, and from whom Eartha Kitt's "Lady Eloise" character is partially inspired.

     Interestingly this same kind of "ethnic presumption" is exemplified in the film itself in a scene where Marcus (Murphy) and his two closest friends and business compadres - Tyler (Martin Lawrence) and Gerard (David Alan Grier) - shop at an Upper West Side men's clothing boutique and are not only tailed throughout the establishment by a suspicious salesperson. But when Tyler asks the price of a jacket, he's told "We don't have layaway". When the guys react to the comment in a justifiably offended manner, they're then told by the fearful employee in a "please don't hurt me" voice "We don't keep cash on the premises". The scene is both hilarious and enraging at the same time. And if you're an African-American there's a good chance it also has a tragic ring of familiarity to it as well.


     This is an example of that thing mentioned earlier: how "... a (filmmaker) member of a particular group can often bring to a film a great many more little known insights and observations which someone not of that group can bring; insights and minute cultural details (of both small and large significance) - the existence of which the non-group person may not even be aware". The fact that at the time of the film's release many non-African Americans found the scene shocking (though, yes, funny too as it was intended) proves the point of a certain part of the populace "not being aware" of certain things. As for the aforementioned critic's "ethnic presumption" in referring to Hudlin's film as "a fantasy" in which blacks are successful business people, Eddie Murphy himself took the particular journalist and others to task by penning a rare  op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks after BOOMERANG’s debut.


     The fact-of-the-matter of the day (as unfair as it was) is that until BOOMERANG most films from African-American filmmakers, ... the only films which seemed to find distributors (or at the very least the ones able to grab the media and awards season attention)... were the "Hood films" cut from the BOYZ 'N THE HOOD, STRAIGHT OUTTA BROOKLYN, SOUTH CENTRAL mode. Sure, there was the occasional art house exception like Julie Dash's visually elegant (and visually eloquent) DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), or Spike Lee's sprawling MALCOLM X (released later in '92 as well). But the fact is Dash never made another theatrical feature film after DAUGHTERS. And Lee couldn't get Warner Bros. to fully fund the 3 hour film he wanted to make. So he did the back-then version of crowdfunding by getting celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Prince to financially get behind his vision of the project.

(top) Julie Dash / DAUGHTERS FO THE DUST (1991),
(bottom) Spike Lee / MALCOLM X (1992)
     
     And as far as T.V. "back in the day" of BOOMERANG ... . Well, while during the era of the late 1960s / early 70s Civil Rights and Black Power Movements there had been proactive / self-determining black characters in shows such as JULIA, ROOM 222 and Norman Lear's THE JEFFERSONS, by the 1980s era of Reganomics and the rise of what some would call "Yuppie-ism", black characters - even the leads in TV series such as DIFFERENT STROKES, GIMMIE A BREAK and BENSON - were often either orphans adopted by "rich white saviors" or were domestics working for them. And even mainstream hits like THE COSBY SHOW and A DIFFERENT WORLD were considered (this phrase always gets me!) "unicorns" in that such a crossover success - even a huge one like COSBY at the time - was considered too rare to be thought of as a new commercial norm or lasting paradigm.


     The financial success of BOOMERANG, however (produced for $42 million and taking in $131 million), held it's own against other Summer of '92 hits such as BATMAN RETURNS, LETHAL WEAPON 3 and UNFORGIVEN, and signaled a change in the kinds of films black directors, writers and more were henceforth able to get into the mainstream. But it still wasn't an easy progression.

     I vividly remember Spike Lee's former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (MALCOLM X, JUNGLE FEVER, MO' BETTER BLUES, DO THE RIGHT THING) catching flack from a (I guess) well meaning / well intentioned white film critic who felt that after making a stunning directorial debut with 1992's violent Harlem youth drama JUICE starring Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur, Dickerson was "wasting his talent" on genre fare like 1993's SURVIVING THE GAME (a modern take-off on Richard Connell's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME with Ice T and  Rutger Hauer), and 1994's TALES FROM THE CRYPT  PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT.

Ernest Dickerson -
(L to R) JUICE (1992), SURVIVING THE GAME (1994),
TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT (1995)

     If I recall correctly Dickerson's response was to remind such self appointed "guardians of cinematic tastes" that African-American filmmakers can be (and are) just as diverse as their white counterparts; and similarly grew up loving to read classic novels and short stories such as Connell's, and comic books like those which inspired both the TALES FROM THE CRYPT tv series and his film. Y’know, reminding some of the critics at that time that we were reading, drawing, going to the movies and doing other things too as children, and not just dodging bullets and being beaten up by bad police.


     The statement evident in up-and-coming black filmmakers making such “popcorn flicks” - apart from the very pragmatic one that we can make a studio’s cash registers ring just as effectively as our less "melanin enhanced" cinematic brethren can - was that our lives and history consisted of both positive and negative aspects. And like any other filmmaker, African-American ones began to demand the right to tell all of those stories, and not just the ones a collection of Hollywood suits in a boardroom or pitch meeting thought were comfortably and commercially “urban“. I mean, look at the other important filmmakers who dove into those "less artistic" “popcorn” genres for the sheer pleasure of fun and homage - among them Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, Freddie Francis and others - all of whom also directed TALES FROM THE CRYPT stories by way of the tv series which lead to Dickerson’s theatrical film.


     No! BOOMERANG didn’t single-handedly, superhumanly alter the course of African-American filmmaking the way the Man of Steel all by his lonesome lifted that car over his head on the famous cover of ACTION COMICS #1. Uh, uh! It arrived during an era which was already seething and fermenting with a desire for change. And it’s success was a major catalyst, … an added reagent (if you will) which finally helped that fermenting dough to rise and take shape. One of the trends / movements which always heralds a major social change is a prevalence of satire directed towards a long existing societal norm or socio-political mindset - a norm which many come to believe needs to be torn down and rebuilt.

Changing the social mindset via satire -
(clockwise) YOU NATZY SPY! (1940), THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940),
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

     During the rise of Fascism in the 1930s / early 40s in Europe - a time when many in America held isolationist views and felt it wasn’t “America’s business” to protest and get involved; mostly as it would harm U.S. business interests abroad - satirist fired the first loud volleys against that Fascism in the form of The Three Stooges’ YOU NATZY SPY! (1940), Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), and Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - all of which, by the way, were criticized by many in the U.S. at the time as “stirring up trouble”. That is, of course, until Dec. 7, 1941, after which they were then considered “ahead of their time”.

Changing the social mindset via satire -
(clockwise) IN LIVING COLOR (1990), I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA' (1988),
HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE (1987)
   
     In the late 1980s / early 90s one could observe a similar fermenting of not only “artistic disenchantment”, but a general societal disenchantment / lack of tolerance with the current status quo in regards to the growing stereotypical depiction of African-Americans in film, television, news and more. And the creative ferment backlash against that mindset first began to make itself known via satirical outlets such as the ground-breaking sketch comedy series IN LIVING COLOR (1990 - ’94), and films like Robert Townsend's HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE ('87) and Keenan Ivory Wayans I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA! ('88) - all of which hilariously, and at times brutally, made mincemeat out of not only the popular media‘s depiction of blacks in America at the time (lampooning everything from the blaxploitation images of the 70s through the gang-banger flicks of the 80s), but also skewered the stereotypical images many blacks in America had come to believe about themselves.


     Hudlin’s BOOMERANG cleverly bridged comedy and romance (and, yeah, no kidding - even a little drama!). And it’s financial success served as a “See, we told you so” back up / justification / validation to the backlash which IN LIVING COLOR and the others had begun to stir up. It performed the “passing of the mantle” from the older generation to the next, and simultaneously set the stage in order that the next generation might take what it had inherited and carry it further in a more diverse depiction of African-Americans in both media and society from then onward.

     Now, did Hudlin, screenwriters Murphy, Barry Blaustein & David Sheffield and the others do / create all of this socially relevant “fulcrum shift stuff" consciously, ... deliberately? I honestly don‘t believe so. Generally speaking the average (and usually most effective) film artists aren’t those who are necessarily “trying to deliver a message”. Yeah, there are those “message films” which can and do strike a cord within the populace. But more often it’s those films which are just seeking to be entertaining - and in the midst of being entertaining happen to strike a nerve within the cultural / psychological zeitgeist - that ultimately end up as “sign posts” films within a particular era.


     This is because in seeking to entertain, the average creative individual tends to ask themselves “Hmmm? What’s really REALLY scary, romantic, funny, etc.?”. And the answer is usually highly subjective - dependent upon what’s happening outside that creative’s window at that particular time. As such what was funny, scary, romantic, etc. ten or five years ago (or even ten or five months ago) won’t necessarily be so now.


     In this regard Hudlin and Murphy’s BOOMERANG ends up both the culmination of a certain “fermentation of dissatisfaction” over an era, as well as the response to that dissatisfaction - a response which then served as a “fulcrum shift” point and launch pad into a new era. In the same way in which time is finally the one and only true litmus test of a crafted wine's structural quality (sorry, but a history of having worked in restaurants cause my analogies to drift there now and then - haha!), so has the passing of almost three decades set BOOMERANG apart as a seminal milestone in American film canon every bit as much as did earlier films such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, M*A*S*H, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, SHAFT, ENTER THE DRAGON, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and a handful of others - all of which in their own unique ways did the same exact thing in altering (a little or a lot) the course trajectory of American film which would follow in their wake.

     So, yeah, changing the world can be hilarious business.

     Well played, Playa!


                                                                                                          CEJ

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More @ ...

* Los Angeles Times - ON "BOOMERANG" AND ISSUES OF BLACK AND WHITE: ALL WE WANT IS EQUAL TREATMENT (7/20/92 - by Eddie Murphy)

* New York Times - THE HUDLIN BROTHERS SET OUT TO PROVE BLACK IS BOUNTIFUL (7/26/92 - by Patrick Pacheco)

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