"Race relations made funky"
Dir. Malcolm D. Lee; writ. John Ridley (based on his Internet comic series) and Michael McCullers; feat. Eddie Griffin, Chris Kattan, Denise Richards, Dave Chappelle, Neil Patrick Harris, and Aunjanue Ellis (PG-13)
Hooked on the funk that his father raised him with, Undercover Brother (Griffin) fights against everything un-funky — especially the Man — with a Robin Hood attitude and Bruce Lee baditude. When his path crosses that of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. (a secret organization also dedicated to fighting the Man), Undercover Brother joins up to stop world-wide whitening.
Turns out the Man has a special recipe of his own that turns ambitious blacks into grinning simpletons. Billy Dee Williams plays the pawn in the Man's plan with William Shatner-like, brain-washed creepiness, hucking fried chicken instead of his candidacy for president of the United States.
The funniest stuff riffs on stereotypes — both black and white — with good nature enough for easy swallowing: the curvaceous Denise Richards is used as "black man's kryptonite"; mounds of mayonnaise drip from whitey's sandwiches (leaving Undercover Brother retching); and any embarrassing event in African-American history turns out to be just one of the Man's ploys to quash anything with soul ('cept the whole O.J. thing — he did that himself). Most of the film is about as heavy as a Sprite, and as sweet, too.
Technically, the pacing lags at points and continuity isn't always what it should be, but Griffin's presentation of his "fuzzy, black balls" and ability to add nuance to movements as smoothing his afro make up for most of the movie's shortcomings. — John Brewer
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
"A horse is a horse"
Dir. Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook; writ. John Fusco; feat. Matt Damon, James Cromwell, Daniel Studi, Chopper Bernet, Jeff LeBeau (G)
The spirit of the mythical American West runs at the head of a herd of wild mustangs. They live and breathe — like their two-legged, Disney-animated counterparts, the Lakota — on the open golden plains fed by the rushing Cimarron, a river as blue as the windy skies it reflects. You can almost smell the fresh air as the stallion Spirit (the voice of Damon) protects his herd, like his father before him — even humbling a savage cougar — and like the way his Disney predecessor, Simba of The Lion King (1994), protected his pride.
The cavalry men of the villainous Colonel (Cromwell) lasso Spirit, but the horse refuses to be broken despite the slapstick efforts of the troopers. Little Creek (Native-American Studi), a young Lakota brave, suffers close to the same fate. Both captives wind up roped to the posts of the cavalry's corral. Their only hope of redeeming the freedom they both live for is to band together.
As odd-couple buddies, Spirit and Little Creek kick the story into a wild gallop through adventures worthy of any action movie and a romantic comedy of neighs and whinnies when the Lakota's trusty steed Rain trots into the picture.
Spirit is rated G, but a word of parental guidance: The animated violence falls somewhere between afternoon cartoons and video games, while Spirit's prancing wooing only has the faintest whiff of anything sexual. Still, images that equate darkness of hide with slavish villainy and animals with Native Americans seem tinged with the worst of Disney's old-world-order iconography.
But at least in this spirited pony ride through the melodrama of the American West, it's the Indians who are the good guys. — James Keith LaCroix