2016 . 1h 32m . Comedy, Romance .
An inexperienced college student meets a wealthy businessman whose sexual practices put a strain on their relationship.
Cast: Kali Hawk, Marlon Wayans, Kate Miner, Affion Crockett, Tina Grimm, Alice Rietveld, Brad Schmidt, Jenny Zigriano
They say there are some films that are "review-proof" - films so bad yet made to appeal to the general masses on such a scale as to survive at the box office, no matter the astonishing lack of craft or cleverness involved. They say there are some films that are beyond parody - films that are so ridiculous yet self-serious as to be immune to the jibes and barbs of more sophisticated filmmaking designed to poke holes in their facade. In February 2015, one such film was released on a global scale and was a huge hit: Fifty Shades of Grey. Now, inevitably (?), Marlon Wayans and company bring you...Fifty Shades of Black?
From the opening moments, you (or, at least, those who sat through the previous execrable excuse for cinema that was Fifty Shades) will recognize the stylistic tropes: the slick, pale, glossy cinematography meant to be indicative of would-be austere self-seriousness; the R-and-B-inflected musical score; the lone figure in dark clothes jogging through a (mostly) grey and rainy city; the big, wide helicopter shots of the locations (used throughout, these don't establish the specific location of Seattle - the Space Needle and other such landmarks are conspicuously absent - so much as work as transitions).
Before long, the film makes its first racist joke. Christian Black (get it?), the "executive" played by Marlon Wayans, steals purses, cars and commits other crimes as he jogs through the city. Yet, we also see him dressing, choosing from his near-identical wardrobe. This is interspersed with the decidedly Plain Jane "style" of Hannah Steale (as opposed to Dakota Johnson's Anastasia Steele in the first film; played here by a more-than-game Kali Hawk), also preparing for her day, I guess...
Hannah must cover for roommate Kateesha (Jenny Zigrino) in an interview with black executive Christian Black for...oh never mind. He claims he's started his corporation as an umbrella for his drug dealing enterprise ("like all successful black men," so he says). After Hannah literally attempts to break his door down to get into his office, she runs head first into a statue and face-plants on her hands and knees before her future "master." After insulting Hannah over and over and over again in sexist, misogynistic terms, Christian shows signs of what passes for "attraction" and the two (very very gradually) enter into a BDSM relationship (just as in the original film, and the series of books on which it's based). She has the good sense to leave, only to have his elevator doors literally slam on her face (I could be mistaken, but I think this occurs twice).
The film makes strident attempts at something resembling a paint-by-numbers version of the original plot, with steamy sex scenes replaced by gags - largely of the sexist and racist variety. From Christian calling Hannah a bitch and making other sexist remarks over and over and over again, to the borderline-blackface-level offensive nature of Zigrino's performance as Kateesha, a white girl trying to be (painfully stereotypically) "black" ostensibly for the purposes of humor, Wayans' film (he co-wrote, produced and stars) offends at every turn. Where the Scary Movie films opted (largely) for less-offensive gross-out attempts at humor in order to lampoon horror tropes from the Scream and Exorcist sagas, as well as other pop culture phenomena, this film seems positively ecstatic to throw anything and everything at the wall regardless of the fact it had no chance of "sticking."
Without any semblance of an explanation, Wayans' character is nearly caught in bed with Hannah by his mother (lily-white Jane Seymour), a racist with a filthy mouth and terrible pre-conceived notions (his father is played by similarly pigmented Fred Willard, the less said about which the better). This allows for further black stereotyping at the hands of the white parentage, with Wayans only going so far as to say, "My parents are pretty racist" (or something equally limp to that effect).
When the film isn't horribly racist, it manages (often in basically the same breath) to be offensively sexist, from the "rapey" 'nice guy' best friend (Andrew Bachelor) who not only near-whispers dirty things and then tries to make Hannah think she misheard him again and again...and again but literally drugs her on a night on the town, to Kateesha's "slutty fat girl friend" status as a punchline meant to ... to - what? When she isn't perpetuating offensive black stereotypes with her character attributes, she also does the same with other people. Ugh.
Then there's the dynamic between Hannah and Christian. He calls her all sorts of offensive names and says terribly offensive things to her, in the name of humor. On the plus side, he is very straight-forward about what a creep he is, and how he seems to be interested only in humiliating her, and only interested in her if she's open and able to be turned on by that (as in the first film, this film confuses BDSM with excuses for domestic abuse on various levels).
Inevitably, there is the scene where Hannah and Christian must negotiate what she is and is not willing to endure in their "relationship." Perhaps inevitably, this is where whatever scintilla of narrative coherence Wayans has previously managed breaks down entirely. As they go over the list, Hannah seems open and excited for everything on the list, and even goes Christian one or more better on a few points (including other women and various graphically described sexual acts). To say this is completely at odds with any previous information about the (to this point) virginal Hannah is an understatement.
Similarly, there are a couple of odd "flashbacks" in which Christian wants to recount his tortured past. We get a disturbing cameo from Florence Henderson (yes, Mrs. Brady!) as a music teacher playfully credited as "Mrs. Robinson" (yes, they went there - a Graduate reference), who seduces Christian at a young age and when he disappoints her in bed, belittles and yells at him in...perhaps you guessed it, the manner of J.K. Simmons ("Were you rushing or were you dragging?!?") in Whiplash (2014)! The whole sequence is silly and very much in the vein of the kind of non-sequitur we might expect from the Scary Movie franchise. But it doesn't last.
Further, Christian also flashes back to the time he was embarrassed on a Florida male stripper stage when he showed he had, in fact, a very small penis (this might be one of the rare occasions when Wayans seems to be undermining black stereotypes instead of supporting them here). The sequence is meant as a send-up of Magic Mike (or Magic Mike XXL, assuming they're trying to be specific in some way). It seems like something of a detour.
Finally, there is one scene of note which may or may not be worth thinking about in a greater context (or would be, if it didn't seem like something of a put-on). As in the first film, Hannah and Christian, having negotiated what they're going to do together, retire to the Red Room (of Pain) and Hannah asks Christian to give her the worst he can do (this, after he previously attempted to paddle her with a board, a cane, a shovel, and other large objects to no effect, before "torturing" her with water boarding and, in one of only two laughs, a book). As he peruses the canes and whips on his rack, we see the obvious reference to slavery and its place in cinema history is palpable, but whatever the joke was intended to be is lost, as the scene devolves before our very eyes into Hannah ... oh, but never mind.
Look, I realize how silly it probably is to be offended by this in any way, shape, or form. But rather than succeed in making truly dangerous filmmaking and storytelling like Fifty Shades a laugh-riot, it contributes to the problem by perpetuating the disgusting nature of the thing. Any attempt at a larger social commentary is irrelevant when you think about all the ways Wayans seems to be degrading the woman he is pursuing throughout the film, the ways in which he and others degrade various races, degrades some famous people (one nice dig at Donald Trump and an icky throwaway gag involving the affair between a certain old filmmaker and his stepdaughter), and finally the way he degrades himself. No, on second thought, he deserves it