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“Blaxploitation” never became a dirty word in cinematic circles, despite the “sploit.” In its classic ’70s incarnation, the genre signaled a taking back of culture by African-Americans—its raunchy, garish, thrill-ride slice of urban life, with cartoonishly exaggerated stereotypes of street players and Black Power action heroes, consciously and scrupulously omitted white-majority participation, even understanding. These movies were not for, by, or about white folks, and they left traditional cinematic standards of judgment in the dust. As records of the hunger of African-American audiences to see some recognizable or empowering version of their lives on-screen, blaxploitation films were sui generis, existing outside the realm of the mainstream value system—the first critic-proof films.
Classic action blaxploitation, with the invulnerable hip-shooting ladies’ man in the lead, has gone the way of the icebox, but not because a better refrigeration system has risen up to replace it. Opportunities for black actors aren’t astronomically better than they were, and lord knows there are still plenty of parts that call for, as LL Cool J put it, “the guy in the Afro running down the street with a TV set.” Elsewhere, PC-addled screenwriters sketch sanctified Sidney Poitier types into white-driven stories and call it diversity.
African-Americans who cannot depend on the white filmmaking community to do better are wise to put on a show in their own barn. Despite the cross-racial appeal of buppie dramadies like Soul Food and The Best Man, youth-targeted, rawer, more exclusive blaxploitation still exists, mutated nowadays into comedy. Films like the Friday series and the parodies of earnest gangsta flicks like Don’t Be a Menace… and Fear of a Black Hat exist because they fill the same need Superfly did almost 30 years ago.
Next Friday, the follow-up to the starring vehicle for rapper Ice Cube, 1995’s Friday (directed by F. Gary Gray), is as funny as the first one even if you miss half the jokes. The writers (Ice Cube and D.J. Pooh) delight in rapid-fire exchanges and stoned meanderings, and they have a sense of language that is twisty and surprising. The story picks up on another Friday, naturally, with Craig Jones (Cube) nervously awaiting the revenge of his old nemesis, Debo (Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr.), the massive, cavern-voiced neighborhood bully Craig sent to the pokey in the first installment, who has busted out. Craig’s father ships him out to Rancho Cucamonga to stay with his Uncle Elroy (Don “DC” Curry) and cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps), figuring that the suburbs will hold no trials for put-upon regular-guy Craig.
Next Friday unspools like a classic farce, zipping from one wacky story line to another without much concern for whether each is given equal time or is neatly resolved. As Debo and a sidekick converge on suburbia, Craig finds life in the “fake-ass Brady Bunch” house—a white ranch trimmed in pimp purple that Elroy bought with his lottery winnings—to be just as fraught as ‘hood life. Craig makes goo-goo eyes at a sexy neighbor (Lisa Rodriguez), invoking the wrath of her moronic low-riding brothers, Joker, Little Joker, and Baby Joker, and, worst of all, their dog, Chico; he causes havoc at the record store where Day-Day and a diminutive white stoner named Roach (Justin Pierce) work; and he tries to save the day by stealing drug-money from the Jokers when Elroy is threatened with foreclosure. Then there are Day-Day’s furious, pregnant ex-girlfriend (Tamala Jones, all gimlet eyes and nasty pout) and frequent slowdowns in the action owing to massive marijuana intake.
The plot is ridiculous and the laughs are constant; the freshness lies in the details and language. Day-Day’s fearful soliloquy on the intimidating powers of two girls named Baby D and Cupcake is hysterical; Epps has Chris Tucker’s motormouthed agility with none of his smug showiness. Day-Day is as good-hearted as he is self-deluded—he’s the “playa” who can’t stop his ex from keying his BMW and whose idea of keeping track of expenses is vague, to say the least. “How much have you got left from the lottery?” Craig asks his cousin out of frustration. “I don’t know,” says Day-Day. “I bought some shoes…” His conversation comes straight from the subconscious, his half-articulated musing making a portrait of a very peculiar mind. Getting high in the back room of the record store, Day-Day relates a disjointed history of his cousin’s toilet embarrassments, culminating with a pool accident. Just before the scene cuts, he taps his cheek and whispers wonderingly, “It touched my face a little…”
Director Steve Carr keeps the story hopping, with plenty of silly kinky sex and bathroom humor to temper the film’s such-as-they-are larger themes—like questions of cultural integrity in suburbia—which don’t get answered. The script makes cartoons of the Latinos without demonizing them, although it does betray a poor understanding of the homeboy mind-set: The Ricky Martin joke gets a laugh, but any Mexican knows he’s not the same as a Puerto Rican. (And the chicas are all wrong, but I quibble.) As a stand-in for the white viewer, Roach, Day-Day’s easygoing “white slave,” plays goofy sidekick and loyal pal to the cousins, getting Chico the insane dog high, and falling off his skateboard at every opportunity. Next Friday takes slice-of-urban-life hardballs like drug-dealing, guns, and an intimate knowledge of prison life, and turns them into Nerfs with its essentially decent characters and the bonkers street poetry of the script. When the Jokers trap Craig and Roach inside their house, they use their recent incarceration as sexual menace—”He look like a little Frosted Mini-Wheat,” Baby Joker sneers at Roach. It’s not a black-pride vehicle of spotless nobility, but I find a subversive joy in observing a piece of art that cares so little what I think of it. CP