Perhaps the most admirable thing about the overall very admirable comedy “Undercover Brother” is that in it, race relations are distilled down to nothing more than tiny cultural things like blacks’ disdain for mayonnaise, which white people seem to love.
Some people have actual hate for other races; those people are not represented in this film. Who we see instead are people — white and black — who feel uneasy around people of other races simply because they don’t understand each other.
It’s that puzzlement that inspired “Undercover Brother,” which is an ultra-funky, mildly subversive parody of ’70s blaxploitation films and spy capers. The title character, whose given name is Anton Jackson, is played by Eddie Griffin. He’s a super-cool fellow with a huge afro and groovy threads who is recruited by the top-secret organization B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. (we’re never told what it stands for) to help fight The Man.
The Man is an actual man, seen only in shadows, whose evil organization seeks to stop black culture from influencing white culture. White kids using slang like “whassup” and “dawg,” not to mention rapping — it’s more than The Man, aided by the spastic Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), can bear.
B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., meanwhile, has the goal of reinstating black culture to its former glory. It’s no wonder the organization seems stuck in the ’70s: That was the last decade in which African-American culture was distinct and unique. Since then, it has been watered down by the likes of Urkel and Bryant Gumbel.
Top agents include computer expert Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), paranoid Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle) and Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis). They are all led by the gruff-talking Chief (Chi McBride), with a token white guy (Neil Patrick Harris) assisting as an intern. (“Affirmative action,” the Chief explains.)
The Man’s current plot is to prevent a black Colin Powell-ish presidential candidate (Billy Dee Williams) from running, using mind control to get him to open a chain of fried chicken restaurants instead. Recruited and trained by the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Undercover Brother inflitrates The Man’s operation, and in the process comes dangerously close to becoming one of those whitened black men himself. (He starts to love mayonnaise, for example.)
One is glad to see that, unlike too many comedies in recent years, this is not a showcase for the lead actor. One is never expected to laugh at Eddie Griffin simply because he’s doing some trademark Eddie Griffin shtick; one is expected to laugh because he’s playing a funny character who does funny things. He’s surrounded by a great ensemble cast of amusing characters, too, all working earnestly and gleefully.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who also directed the respectable “Best Man”), “Undercover Brother” is not scatterbrained and unfocused like so many spoof comedies are. It’s packed with trenchant cross-cultural observations — black people’s misunderstanding of white people is just as well represented as the vice versa — but remains good-natured and fun. The satire is at both cultures’ expense, which is a beautiful thing.
B (; )