Wednesday, March 4, 2020

BOOMERANG 1992

Reversal of a Dog

Boomerang is one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies. Time has only rendered its already-remarkable cast of Black actors a once-in-a-lifetime assemblage, but the film to me is genuinely hilarious and its premise so irresistible, I’m surprised I haven't come across it before in a film.
A callous, commitment-phobic, career Casanova named Marcus Graham (dashing ad executive Eddie Murphy, ever on the lookout for perfection) faces a moment of reckoning and gets his comeuppance when he falls in love for the first time, only to find the tables have been turned. The woman who sweeps him off his feet is Jacqueline Broyer (the elegant Robin Givens), a confident, empty-flattery-immune executive (his new boss, in fact) possessed of comfortable self-acceptance and plenty of game of her own. A woman who, when it comes to artfully playing the field and displaying a mastery of the game of love-‘em-and-leave-‘em; proves in every way to be Marcus' match and “dog” doppelgänger.  
Eddie Murphy as Marcus Graham
Robin Givens as Jacqueline Broyer
Halle Berry as Angela "Agatha" Lewis
Grace Jones as Helen Strange (pronounced Strawn-J)
Eartha Kitt as Lady Eloise
I was immediately reminded of just why Boomerang’s premise so intrigued me when, in prepping this essay, my search for a laudatory, non-judgmental, non-pejorative term for the female equivalent of a Casanova or ladies’ man took me through Thesaurus Hell and back, only to discover there really isn't any. The appeal of the so-called charming womanizer has always been lost on be, yet the pop-cultural cult of the loveable lothario has left us with countless variations on admiration-laced labels like Romeo, playboy, and roué. But our culture’s rigid gender double-standards have no such allowances for women.
The only terms I came across for a woman who enjoys playing the field are ones defined by the male gaze (seductress, temptress), common vulgar epithets, or words subtly reflective of the fear of female sexuality (vamp, siren). I guess that leaves only the second-hand, non-partisan “playgirl.” 
Marcus, a serial girl-watcher, becomes the sexualized object of Jacqueline's gaze

I was too young for the golden age of the romantic comedy. The days of Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck...back when Hays Code censorship necessitated the emphasis on “romance” and chemistry in lieu of demonstrative expressions of sexual attraction. I did, however, grow up in the ‘60s: the era of the Kinsey Report, the sexual revolution, and the heyday of the noxious Playboy stereotype. Gentle romantic comedies morphed into crass sex farces in which men and women were combatants in tedious Battle of the Sexes roundelays centering on fuck-anything-that-moves bachelors out to trick superannuated virgins into bed before they could trick him into marriage.
Lela Rochon as Christie, a dog-lover who's also susceptible to the two-legged variety

Come the '70s the chase-the-secretary-around-the-desk ‘60s womanizer was reimagined as the free-love hippie hedonist (The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart -1970) or the self-appointed soldier on the frontlines of the sexual revolution (Shampoo - 1975). In the '80s, man-boys dominated the rom-coms landscape (Skin Deep -1989), a side-effect of lazy writers--stumped over how to align progressive sexual politics with antiquated sex comedy tropes--could only envision "liberated" woman as finger-wagging killjoys and surrogate mother figures before eventually eliminating them altogether.
 It's in this atmosphere the Bromance blossomed, and those paying attention recognized that the only real rom-coms being made were male-male and disguised as buddy movies: e.g., Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hrs (1982) and Lethal Weapon (1987).
Angela: "She's fantastic!  I mean, if I were a guy, I would probably be interested in Jacqueline"
The Good Girl vs Bad Girl Myth
Gender stereotypes mandate that women must always be perceived to be in competition. Angela and Jacqueline aren't rivals, nor are they the good girl vs the bad girl (the film ascribes no more moral failing to Jacqueline's behavior than it's also willing to ascribe to Marcus). Like Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie in Shampoo, it's more a case of two female friends who want different things from the same man.


The 1990s represented a boom era in Black Cinema. The start of the decade saw the release of films like To Sleep With Anger, Boyz in the Hood, Mo’ Better Blues, New Jack City, and A Rage In Harlem and had me harkening back to the Black Film Explosion of the ‘70s--when, regardless of content or quality, the press insisted on labeling every single film with a Black cast “Blaxploitation.”. Amongst so many heavy dramas and youth-centric comedies (I was then 35, the wrong demographic for the Hudlin Brothers’ first film, 1990s House Party) Boomerang provided some much-needed old-style sophistication, glamour, romance, and escapism.
Geoffrey Holder as "Nasty" Nelson
Originally (and Clumsily) titled Playboy Falls into LoveBoomerang came along at just the right time for me. I’d long ago made peace with rom-coms being “all hetero, all the time” (a treaty I’ve since broken), but this didn’t extend to their “all white couples, all the time” take on romance. Black couples in romantic comedies were conspicuous by their absence. When Boomerang came along, For Love of Ivy (1968) and Claudine (1974) were the only rom-coms on my favorites list that were about Black couples. It’s as though Hollywood’s narrow-end-of-the-telescope insistence on filtering everything through a white narrative lens had reduced the entirety of Black experience to stories about race-based trauma. I imagined industry green-lighters found it inconceivable that Black people could laugh, meet cute, fall in love, break up, reconcile, and live happily ever after.
Marcus has a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that the "model" he was just hitting on is actually the company's new Chief of Marketing. The job he thought was assured to him after sleeping with the company's figurehead, Lady Eloise (Eartha Kitt).

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’ve always felt the title Boomerang only half refers to the karmic reversal Marcus Graham’s love life undergoes in the course of the film. Boomerang is also a fair description of what lies in store for unsuspecting rom-com audiences confronted with the familiar tropes of the genre (aka clichés) subverted along lines of gender, race, and class.
I respond to Boomerang as I do the ‘70s comedies of Mel Brooks—it’s the ensemble contributions of the talented cast that makes the film so funny, rather than any particular performance. (Although I could look at an edit reel of all of Grace Jones’ scenes and be in heaven. She’s that terrific.)
Martin Lawrence as Tyler, David Alan Grier as Gerard
Lawrence’s relentlessly “woke” character is essentially Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, seeing Antisemitism in everything (“No, not ‘did you eat,’ but ‘Jew eat?’ You get it? Jew eat!” )

Mel Brooks breathed new life into classic film genres like the western (Blazing Saddles) and the horror film (Young Frankenstein) by infusing them with a contemporary, scatological comic sensibility. 
What's so hilarious and also emblematic of Hollywood’s Black representation myopia is that all Boomerang needed to do to revitalize (and in many instances, restructure) situations, characters, and narrative devices we’ve seen before in a million romantic comedies was simply depict Black people living their lives. To present Black experience, humanized, with all the diverse shades of funny, vulnerable, intelligent, ambitious, sensitive, shallow, sexy, outrageous, glamorous, and yes, raunchy.
Bebe Drake and the late John Witherspoon are comedy gold as 
Mrs. & Mr. Jackson, Gerard's country-ass parents 

In trying to think of other "a taste of his own medicine" comedies, all I was able to come up with were Some Like It Hot (1959), in which two skirt-chasing musicians wear skits themselves and learn what it's like to be on the receiving end of lecherous male advances; and Goodbye Charlie (1964) which has a womanizer reincarnated as woman and having to fend off men like him(her)self.
Leaving behind such farcical extremes, Boomerang is essentially a sex comedy of manners that has fun skewering traditional gender roles, double standards, and rom-com conventions.

Now the plot gets thick. Mr. Unplayable’s about to catch the short end of the stick. *
Waiting by the Phone
Taken for Granted
Woman on Top 
Seduced and Abandoned
It’s kinda like a boomerang; what you put out comes back to ya, it’s the same old thing. *
       *lyrics to the 1995 rap song "What Comes Around Goes Around" by Kid Sensation 


PERFORMANCES
To anyone familiar with my taste in films, it should come as no surprise when I assert that the women are the chief attraction and saving graces of Boomerang...especially Grace Jones. They are all so dynamic, charming, and have such presence, they soften out the rough edges of the often problematic Eddie Murphy (in an almost completely reactive role, he's actually quite likable). To have Grace Jones, Robin Givens, Halle Berry, Eartha Kitt, Tisha Campbell, and Lena Rochon all in the same movie is some kind of Essence magazine glam wish come true. They are the film's most valuable players, so good that I found myself wishing the guys would all fade into the background and Boomerang morph into a hip update of Valley of the Dolls with Eartha Kitt as Helen Lawson, Halle Berry as Neely, Robin Givens as Anne, and Lena Rochon as Jennifer. Grace Jones could play any role she wanted.
"My role involved taking off my knickers in public, rubbing them in people's faces, chasing the pants off Eddie, and saying the word 'pussy' a lot with an accent that is from nowhere on Earth. ...I have no idea why they thought of me for the role."
Grace Jones being cheeky in her 2015 memoir I'll Never Write My Memoirs


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
On television recently I saw Oscar-winning screen icon Cicely Tyson relate a story about doing promotion for her 1972 film Sounder and having a white member of the press tell her that the film (about a Black family of sharecroppers in 1933 Louisiana) forced him to confront bigotry within himself because he had a hard time accepting the son in the story (Robert Hooks) calling his father (Paul Winfield) “Daddy.”
Yes, a Black character displaying basic, unremarkable humanity was enough to strain credibility for this man. And while I’m certain this story will leave some people feeling all warm and fuzzy because a Black film led a white man to recognize his prejudices, Tyson recognized it for what it was; a sign of the vast chasm existing between the reality of Black life and white culture’s perception of it. The phenomenon is so common it's been given a name--the Racial Empathy Gap, citing the difficulty white audiences often have in relating to Black characters in films. Cicely Tyson went on to say “That’s when I realized I could not afford the luxury of being an actress. There were some issues that I wanted to address. That I would use my career as my platform.”  
Black film - White Gaze Microaggressions
In 1992 this scene in a men's clothing store where a sales clerk assumes Marcus and his friends are unable to afford the merchandise was criticized for being a burlesque of racism. With the proliferation of cell phones, we now know the scene was subtle compared to the reality.

And indeed, it has been the eternal legacy of Black artists in film to take up the mantle and use their artistic careers as platforms to combat Black invisibility and present the world with images of dignity to counter generations of racist dehumanization. But as author Toni Morrison so eloquently wrote and spoke about, the constant need to frame Black life in ways understandable, acceptable, and appeasing to white audiences not only seriously restrict the free, authentic expression of Black experience, but in the end only reinforces the false dominance of the white perspective.
Spike Lee's pioneering films broadened the scope of what Black films looked like, paving the way for the Hudlin Brothers' Black business world setting of Boomerang (which in real-life inspired the creation of the Marcus Graham Project - a nonprofit dedicated to inclusion in the fields of advertising and marketing).
Father of the Black Film explosion of the 1970s, legendary filmmaker
Melvin Van Peebles appears as a commercial editor
One of the things I don’t think Boomerang gets enough credit for is being a Black film that doesn’t center and prioritize whiteness. Unapologetically uninterested in the white gaze, Boomerang is set in a Black corporate world so alien and underrepresented on the screen that it strained credibility for many white viewers at the time (the only way some could process it at all was to convince themselves it was a fantasy). Boomerang is Black representation funny, funky, sexy, loving, and outrageous enough to be comfortable in its own skin and forego concerns of respectability politics signifiers, uplift roadmaps, or cultural identification signposts.
Director Reginald Hudlin (l.) and producer Warrington Hudlin appear as a couple
of street hustlers soliciting Marcus outside of the Apollo Theater. 
Based on a story idea by Eddie Murphy, Boomerang's screenplay is credited to SNL alumni and longtime Murphy collaborators Barry Blaustein & David Sheffield. In the 2003 book Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema by George Alexander, producer Warrington Hudlin called the duo: "Two white writers who are on Hollywood welfare rolls who just keep getting money with no talent." Labeling the original screenplay "worthless," Hudlin credits the film's Black perspective as emanating from Murphy's original story and the widely-encouraged improvisational skills of the cast. 


It was nothing short of exhilarating for me to see myself and people I recognized in the film’s casual intersection of buppies & homies; hip-hop and R &B; urban sophisticates and “country” relatives; women in charge & sex-positivity feminism; Afrocentrism and Dolemite-level raunch.
I saw Boomerang on opening day July, 1st, 1992 with a friend of mine (now, ex-friend) who found the film profoundly insulting because she felt the absence of white characters in the film was an act of intentional hostility on the part of the filmmakers. Mind you, this was a white friend with whom I’d watched innumerable classic and contemporary movies with all-white casts with nary a peep out of her. Exposure to just ONE film with a prioritized Black gaze was enough to send her off the rails.
Tisha Campbell as Yvonne
Boomerang is killingly funny and ranks high on my absolute favorites chart, but it’s far from being a perfect film. I love how prominently women feature in the narrative and I’ve not one complaint with how they are characterized or depicted in the film (but I say that with the awareness that the almost 30-year-old film is the collaborative work of men, and that as a male myself, I am hardly the last word on the subject). But I personally could do without Eddie Murphy’s incessant need to assert his well-documented—since apologized for—homophobia (Good Lord…the man can’t even let a Frenchman platonically kiss him on the cheek!), and the scenes between Marcus and his buddies grow more cringe-worthy with each passing year (they trigger a lifetime’s memories of suffering the toxic byplay of barbershop talk).
Chris Rock as corporate gossip, Bony T
What lingers with me and what makes me understand how Boomerang has grown into a classic and cult favorite is that it’s a glimmering time capsule of Black culture, highlighting a vast selection of amazing Black artists. As a film, it’s a little piece of comic brilliance that shows its age in some respects, but largely reveals how ahead of the curve it was in defining its point of view and depicting a side of Black life rarely seen on movie screens. The rare entertainment that succeeds in actually being entertaining, I champion Boomerang for its humor, its heart, it's raunchy outrageousness, and especially for its refreshing vision of romance and Black lives lived in a glossy, stylishly old-fashioned Hollywood landscape.
And I Will Give U My Heart


BONUS MATERIAL

With eight weeks in the #1 spot on the R&B charts, the Boomerang soundtrack was a massive hit, with singles flooding the radio airwaves of 1992. To this day my personal fave track remains Grace Jones' "7 Day Weekend," A song that only appears instrumentally in the movie and for which Jones expressed little fondness for in her memoirs, citing too little creative input.

Boomerang introduced me to the magnificent work of African-American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988). The above piece "Jammin ' at the Savoy" -1980, is featured in the scene where Angela teaches a children's art class.

Boomerang spawned a 2019 spin-off TV series produced by Halle Berry and written by Lena Waithe for BET. The show (as of this writing, entering its 2nd season) takes place in modern-day Atlanta, and has the adult daughter of Eddie Murphy & Halle Berry running her own advertising agency while being romantically pursued by the son of Robin Givens' character. The reversal of the premise has Marcus and Angela's daughter as the one afraid of commitment, while Jacqueline's son is the one looking to settle down.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

5 comments:

  1. This movie definitely got a raw deal at the time of its release. Looking at the reviews of the time, most of them are hyper focused on the perceived unreality of black urban professionals, while backhandedly praising the performances. I am glad it has been reappraised since.

    As usual, an excellent read.

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    1. Whym thank you so much, goregoregirl!
      You're so right. No comedy is everyone's cup of tea, but in reading over the reviews from 1992 in prepping this piece, I was struck by the importance of diversity in entertainment journalism. I've never read so many tone-deaf reviews about a film.
      I came away with a stronger sense of the critics themselves than the film they were reviewing. The consensus being:
      1. Unless it's in the context of suffering or racism, few critics know how to react to Black characters on the screen.
      2. Black female sexuality is scary.
      3. White film critics go around with serious preconceptions about the "reality" of Black lives.
      4. A lot of folks really don't like Eddie Murphy.

      Happily, the film found its audience almost from the start and it's reputation has only grown. I think it would have been a bigger one if critics at the time weren't so dedicated to venting their spleens at not seeing themselves represented in ONE major motion picture.

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    2. Agreed. There was a lot of people venting their personal ignorance and vendettas in the guise of journalism/film criticism.

      I've never been a romantic comedy sort (as my username attests), and even I can tell that Boomerang is several ranks smarter than most other genre examples, and is well cast across the board.

      I assume the heavy hate on Eddie Murphy was due to his enormous success at the time, with a splash of bog standard racism.

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  2. Dear Ken: Wow! I had no idea! I remember "Boomerang" playing in theatres in the early '90s (during one of my periodic times in life when I was out of touch with contemporary cinema). But all I remember hearing about was "enchanting newcomer" Halle Berry. I had no idea the movie had such a phenomenal cast!

    I may have to overcome my aversion to Eddie Murphy (started by seeing "Beverly Hills Cop" in its original release, although to be fair, it was the lazy movie that was to blame more than Murphy) and check it out. Your essay certainly convinces me that "Boomerang" is no sloppy and thoughtless Hollywood "product."

    Incidentally, have you heard anything about the new movie "Sylvie's Love"? It stars Tessa Thompson, who I've liked since seeing her in "Dear White People." I guess the movie is not yet in official release, since I found only one review on-line. But here's a link: https://www.rogerebert.com/sundance/sundance-2020-the-40-year-old-version-farewell-amor-sylvies-love The movie sounds like it could be right up my alley, and possibly yours!

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    1. Hi Dave
      I don't think a lot of folks know what a phenomenal gathering of talent BOOMERANG is. (Among those who do, the debate is often whether said talents were shown off to best advantage.)
      I don't think even I fully appreciated this amazing cast back in 1996. Now that so many have passed on, and others have gone on to become such major stars, BOOMERANG gains classic status merely from amassing a once-in-a-lifetime, who's-who roster of talent.
      The '90s Black film boom rattled a lot of critics who were ill-equipped to deal with the challenge films like BOOMERANG presented: That Blakness is not a monolith experience centered around the Hood or Hip Hop.

      I've really only come around to liking Eddie Murphy since DREAMGIRLS and especially DOLEMITE IS MY NAME. When BOOMERANG came out, It had been about 10 years since I saw a film of his (stopped seeing his films after 48 Hrs), having written him off after his savagely homophobic stand up comedy specials.
      I went to BOOMERANG exclusively for Grace Jones, Eartha Kitt, and Robin Givens. This was my first time ever seeing the beguiling Halle Berry. Murphy is fine in this because he's sort of the straight man and is very low key. The character he plays is kind of odious, so please don't rush into seeing this just because I happen to love it. Comedy is always so personal, and I happen to find the thoroughly off color dialogue hilarious in context of the film (it's played for cringe-comedy effect).
      By the way, if you romantic comedies, another one I dearly love is "Crossing Delancey" (1988) with Amy Irving and Peter Rigert. It's really delightful.
      I have put "Sylvie's Love" on my must-see list, having fell in love with Tessa Thompson in the sci-fi thriller ANNIHILATION. Thanks for bringing this new film to my attention, for it sounds rather remarkable (and I love the look of Douglas Sirk films). And like BOOMERANG, it sounds like it fills a void in Black Cinema-- quoting from a pre-review: "We deserve to ourselves happy and light as much as we deserve to see the darkness we have endured."
      Thanks for reading this and commenting, Dave. Always terrific hearing from you!

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