Political Film Society - Newsletter #98 - March 3, 2001

March 3, 2001


The Political Film Society Board of Directors met today, counted ballots cast by members, and certified the following winners:

DEMOCRACY. Sunshine, directed by István Szabó.
EXPOSÉ. Before Night Falls, directed by Julian Schnabel.
HUMAN RIGHTS. Remember the Titans, directed by Boaz Yakin.
PEACE. Thirteen Days, directed by Roger Donaldson.

Down to EarthIn Down to Earth, Lance Barton (played by Chris Rock) is trying to make it as a comedian at the Apollo Club in Harlem. but he just has not developed the knack. All of a sudden, while distracted by a pretty woman, he is killed by a passing truck, and soon he enters heaven, where beautiful people are dancing at a night club. But Lance wants to go back to earth to reach his ambition to become a stand-up comedian and to romance the pretty girl, Suntee (played by Regina King). Two New York-accented White dudes, dressed in con-men attire, appear to be in charge, so he approaches them and begs to return. Mr. King (played by Chazz Palminteri) explains that he can be reincarnated into someone else’s body, so he and his sidekick Mr. Keyes (played by Eugene Levy) take him to see some possible bodies to inhabit. Lance turns down all those he views, so they give him one last chance -- the White body of Charles Wellington III. Lance agrees, but only on a temporary basis -- until they can find a Black dude --, and the deal is struck. However, Lance keeps his own African-American personality, while the rest of the world will see the body of the one whom he replaces. Meanwhile, Wellington’s wife (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and her lover Sklar (played by Greg Germann) have just plotted to kill Wellington, and they are surprised when Wellington emerges alive after an attempt to poison him. Soon, Suntee appears, protesting that Wellington’s firm has just bought out the only public hospital in Brooklyn with plans to turn the structure into a moneymaking hotel.

As Wellington, Lance makes a play for Suntee by promising to keep the hospital running, with nobody turned away for lack of insurance, but the board of directors of his firm is incensed. He also increases the salaries of his servants 200 percent, buys out a comedy club so that he can practice his material for the last amateur contest before the Apollo Club closes, and Suntee falls for the new Wellington. The two angels soon appear, telling Lance that his time as Wellington is up, as they have found a Black body for him. But the rules are that when he is reincarnated permanently, he will have no memory of the life as either Lance Barton or Wellington. Then an assassin, hired by the board of directors, puts a fatal bullet in Wellington. Reincarnated, Lance soon wins the Apollo Club competition, but not as Lance. As he walks out of the auditorium, appearing to be lost, he is alongside Suntee. Thus, his dream has finally come true, albeit in his reincarnated life. The best part of the film is the humor, not the story or the happy ending, but the humor is tailored for African Americans and their friends in the big cities of the United States; many comedy lines will sail over the heads of suburban Whites. Although Blacks account for 25 percent of all filmviewers, Down to Earth may not cross over to white America in any substantial way despite the efforts of codirectors Chris and Paul Weitz to retrofit the plots of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Heaven Can Wait (1978). Meanwhile, there are many political themes in the film -- how privatization of public hospitals shortchanges the poor, why the indigent die because hospitals insist on accepting only those covered by insurance, and the way in which cabdrivers refuse to pick up African American customers. Unfortunately, those most likely to see Down to Earth will already know about these social ills. The subtext of the film appears to say that the only hope for poor Blacks in the United States is to be reincarnated into White bodies, and, since that scenario is unrealistic, the real message is that African Americans should be content to escape into humor, the pursuit of dreamgirls, or, as the film’s tagline ("A case of premature reincarnation") suggests, engage in fantasy. Down to Earth, in short, ratifies an unjust status quo, retrospectively justifying Spike Lee’s fury in Bamboozled (2000), and leads to a very disturbing question: Has Chris Rock become the Steppin Fetchit of the 21st century? MH