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NICOLE ARTHUR NEEDS A humor transplant. She panned Robert Townsend’s movie, The Meteor Man, as unfunny (“Growing Pains,” Film, 7/13), but when I saw it in Union Station recently there was a big audience, and most people were laughing a lot. The viewers seemed quite happy with exactly the aspect of the film that apparently irked Arthur the most: its mix of “preachiness” about the drug problem and loosely plotted, goofball comedy. The two aren’t perfectly balanced in The Meteor Man, and the film certainly isn’t a serious sociological study of poverty and oppression as the roots of the drug business, but who cares? Using the drug and gang scene as a premise, Townsend has spun a good-natured Superman fantasy with a middle-class African-American male in the uptight Clark Kent role. Townsend has a great time fooling around with the cartoon-superhero genre as he explores what it might mean for an exaggeratedly wimpy black teacher in the D.C. public schools to suddenly gain superpowers. Then, at the end, the movie gently acknowledges that there is no Superman and that communities have to tackle the drug trade themselves. What’s Arthur’s problem with that?
I’m white, and I don’t know much about black culture, but I wonder if mainstream reviewers don’t sometimes criticize black filmmakers for a “preachiness” that white academic critics find offensive and that many black audiences don’t because of differing ideas about the function of art. If you accept that Townsend is obviously preaching a little, and that this, rather than “art for art’s sake” or pure entertainment, is among his basic aims as a communicator, and if you also relax and realize that this doesn’t keep him from having escapist fun with the superhero idea, The Meteor Man works fine. It just doesn’t fit any category that Arthur seems familiar with.
I do think that some of Townsend’s jokes may be more accessible to African-American viewers than to white ones. The Meteor Man‘s sight gags about black hairstyles, for example, may simply seem strange to some white viewers, but they had the mostly black audience in hysterics the night I saw the show. The audience likewise seemed to find the mock-menacing “Baby Lords,” the 6-year-old gang recruits, quite funny, maybe because they represent a humorously awful projection of some very scary inner-city trends. Also included in the film were a few jokes about sex that the audience liked, but that may have offended Arthur’s feminist sensibility. If so, I wish Arthur had said so, to explain her dislike of The Meteor Man. As it is, she’s written a sourpuss review of a very funny movie, for no apparent reason.