Undercover Brother, the comedy that arrived in May of 2002, came along more than 25 years after the heyday of blaxploitation, the genre that it was lovingly parodying. Much like the Kenan Ivory Wayans-directed, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (the blaxploitation homage that arrived in 1987), Undercover Brother tied in topical references from the period when it was made, to the full-on blaxploitation tribute.
The film, co-written by John Ridley and Michael McCullers and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, engaged in some wildly broad satires and went after some very low-hanging fraud. But overall, it was a consistently funny comedy, featuring a deep cast and delivering plenty of laughs. It also featured one of the best soundtracks of any movie since the turn of the century.
Released 20 years ago this past week, Undercover Brotherposited that, by around the year 2000, Black culture had lost purchase among the general public, thanks to the efforts of The Man (Robert Trumbull), a shadowy figure pulling the strings. As the movie begins, The Man has brainwashed a Colin Powell-like general-turned-presidential candidate (Billy Dee Williams) into abandoning politics in order to start a fried chicken chain, which is further used to spread the mind control.
It’s up to Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), an Afro-clad, John Shaft-style hero who fights the bad guys. He later teams up with B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., an organization dedicated to fighting The Man, which includes Chief (Chi McBride), Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), and Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis).
Undercover Brother later ends up seduced by White She-Devil (Denise Richards), who’s in league with The Man; Lance (Neil Patrick Harris) serves as the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.’s white intern:
Yes, it’s all very silly, but the film’s humor makes some strong points while paying loving tribute to the genre’s 1970s forebears. There’s also some truly great music, starting with Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” Brown even contributed a memorable cameo.
Sure, not everything endured. It featured a “catfight,” a drawn-out brawl between two women that’s meant to be sexy and distracting to all the men; this sort of thing was all over the place in comedy in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but not really at any time since.
It’s not quite clear what was in the water at the time, but a year before Undercover Brother was Pootie Tang, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock’s even more out-there blaxploitation homage. It’s probably the funnier and better film.
Some of the principals of Undercover Brother have had a better 20 years than others. Malcolm D. Lee has become a near-A-List director, making the two Best Man films and Girls Trip; I won’t blame him for Space Jam: A New Legacy. Ridley, the co-writer, won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave. Dave Chappelle started Chappelle’s Show less than a year later, while Aunjanue Ellis was nominated for her acclaimed performance last year in King Richard.
On the other hand, Eddie Griffin has been nowhere near a starring role in a movie for quite some time and, per Seth Rogen’s autobiography, last year blamed anti-Semitism for his lack of career success. Denise Richards’ career, meanwhile, has mostly switched from movies to reality shows in recent years.
There was a direct-to-Netflix sequel called Undercover Brother 2, released on Netflix in 2019, but it featured none of the original cast, and I’ve never seen it.
But the original Undercover Brother is now streaming on Peacock and deserves another look.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.