Head of State
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 28 March 2003

Race Relations

If this month’s two biggest comedy releases are any indicator of the national mood regarding American race relations, then it’s clear that we haven’t progressed very far since the days of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. As with the offensively bad Steve Martin-Queen Latifah catastrophe Bringing Down the House, Chris Rock’s black man-as-presidential candidate Head of State finds much about white folks to laugh at, turning a ninety-five-minute film into an overlong routine about black people showing their pale compatriots a thing or two about being hip(-hop). Like a stand-up comedy routine at the Apollo, both films are deeply rooted in the schism between cool blacks and square whites, attempting some sort of light-hearted critique about racial prejudice but, in practice, only confirming long-held stereotypes about both groups. That we haven’t yet moved past scenes of silver-haired white goofs dancing and singing along to Nelly’s "Hot in Herre" is either a testament to our unwillingness to let go of long-held derogatory generalizations about one another, or proof that Hollywood can’t confront such issues except through familiar and outdated comedic formulas. Or both.

Rock, on his comedy CDs, HBO show, and guest appearances on Bill Maher’s now-defunct Politically Incorrect, has proven a willingness to attack racial and social issues with both hilarity and incisive candor. What’s so dispiriting about Head of State, however, is that the comedian seems to think that expanding his critiques to feature-length form requires a cookie-cutter white southern governor as the enemy and lots of "bling bling" style as a positive counterpoint. The film begins with what seems like an unending stream of one-liners left over from one of the stand-up’s previous routines, as Rock’s alderman Mays Gilliam attempts to fight for the common man, but winds up losing everything – his job, his car, and his opportunistic fiancé (a perfectly cast Robin Givens). When things couldn’t get bleaker, the Democratic powers-that-be arrive to convince Mays to run for president; their original candidate has just died in a plane crash and the party’s leader (James Rebhorn) wants to put up a minority candidate that will surely lose but help make the party look more racially open-minded, thus indirectly bolstering his own planned 2008 campaign. Suddenly, Mays is traversing the country preaching to his constituency, but the campaign doesn’t take off until the streetwise alderman begins speaking from the heart – by which I mean dressing in Adidas jumpsuits, making rap video campaign commercials, and labeling his campaign "MG2K4" (that’s "Mays Gilliam 2004," for those not down with hip-hop acronyms).

Rock directed and co-wrote Head of State, and his acidic barbs occasionally hit their mark with humorous results, such as when, upon trying to figure out why Democrats would want him as a candidate, Mays immediately imagines himself getting assassinated. Rock packs his film full of non-sequiturs and running audio jokes – an omnipresent Jay-Z track plays whenever he’s in transit, even if that means while riding his bike; a background song lyrically emphasizes everything being said during a scene – and the abundance of comical asides does help distract from the simple-minded premise they’ve been grafted on to. Bernie Mac pops up now and again as Mays’ even more unconventional bail bondsman brother Mitch, and has a few inspired zingers of his own for a Larry King-ish talk show host who wants to know Mitch’s position on NATO (Mitch passes off his ignorance by claiming that he thought they were talking about his friend Nato Jenkins).

But for every funny gag – of which there are a fair share – there are moronic elements such as Mays’ election-day opposition, a redneck vice president named Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy) who likes to proclaim "God Bless America, and no place else!" and is repeatedly referred to as a war hero and Sharon Stone’s cousin. Given the fact that, for the past decade, the American political arena (at least when it comes to presidential hopefuls) has moved closer and closer to the middle, and that a similar Southern-born president was embraced by the black community for much of the 1990s, this characterization of whites as nefarious racist elitists is worthy of nothing but groans. In Head of State, however, if you’re not a bad whitey, you’re a good-hearted ridiculous whitey, such as Mays’ political advisor Martin Geller (Dylan Baker, clearly picking up a paycheck), who comes around to chanting "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire" in a display of his newfound coolness. Mr. Rock, you’re better than this.

Directed by:
Chris Rock

Chris Rock
Bernie Mac
Lynne Whitfield
Dylan Baker

Written by:
Chris Rock
Ali LeRoi

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may not
be appropriate for
children under 13.







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