My neighborhood is (for the time being) largely African-American, which means a few things. First, I'm very scared of its teenagers. Second, I was able to purchase a copy of American Gangster several weeks before it was released in theaters. Third, I was able to purchase that American Gangster bootleg DVD at my local supermarket. And, finally, my local subway platform and storefronts have been completely blitzed by this holiday movie poster:
It was easy to ignore the posters for Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? because it just looked like an advertisement for mustache trimmers, but the Perfect Holiday poster fascinates me. It's like a study in managed expectations. The group portrait inside the snow globe tells me a few things, moving from left to right:
Katt Williams and Charlie Murphy are outrageously dressed (comedy!) and in the background (appearing only in a few scenes!), a combination that also tells me they've been "Witherspooned" into the film. Witherspooning, a reference to character actor John Witherspoon, is when a character or characters who are disproportionately (and inconceivably) more eccentric, loud and colorful than the principals are written into the script at several key moments throughout the film, to say (scream) or do something outrageous (get bit in the nuts by a pitbull; have a long, loud bowel movement; show up at dinner with a horny asian wife/horny she-male wife/horny obese wife) for purely comedic effect, and to offset the otherwise bland and saccharine proceedings. Their roles in the film will be totally peripheral, but their few brief scenes will nonetheless dominate the film's theatrical trailer and TV spots. See: Boomerang, the Rosetta Stone of Witherspooning.
After writing this, I went to the movie's IMDB page to find out the names of the characters in this film. Here is a multiple choice quiz. From these actual character names, can guess the name of the characters played by Katt Williams & Charlie Murphy in The Perfect Holiday. Is it:
A) Narrator & Benjamin
B) Robin & Security Guard
C) Mikey & "Father At The Mall"
D) Delicious & J-Jizzy
Please note there is a small child lying on the ground, signaling that we all keep a secret. He has clearly been molested. Either that, or he is the sassiest kid in this film. Probably molested, though.
Front and center we see black Santa, a little girl who needs a daddy, Gabrielle Union, and a little boy who also needs a daddy but is much more shy about finding one than the little girl. If I could guess what the little girl is whispering in Santa's ear, I would say it's probably something like, "Black Santa, will you help me find a new daddy, and a new man for my mommy, who is desperately single and is also one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood?" I think I could also safely guess that black Santa may not know it now but, if Christmas spirit has anything to do with it, by the film's end black Santa and Gabrielle Union will definitely [insert sex joke with chimney-as-vagina-or-penis metaphor here, although I'm sure "Delicious" will take care of that for you].
On the far right, also relegated to the background, is a fat elf whose fatness will surely not be overlooked, in just about every scene in which he appears. This is known as The Dignity Turn, and is part of a long tradition in mainstream black cinema. All the greats have played this turn: Anthony Anderson, Mo'Nique, Cedric the Entertainer, Martin Lawrence (in fat suit), that kid in The Nutty Professor who farts a lot, etc. Of course, The Dignity Turn is not exclusive to black cinema; it's a universal joy. (See: Kevin James, Dom Deluise, Jack Black, Chris Farley, Wayne Knight, Matthew Perry, etc.)
But the true highlight of this poster isn't even front and center. I'm sure you didn't miss that Christmas ornament in the bottom left corner of the poster. You know, the one in which Academy Award winner Queen Latifah and Academy Award nominee Terence Howard are imprisoned? But why? Easy. These two actors of a slightly higher pedigree and marketability (no offense, Morris Chestnut) were providing a favor. In exchange for partying with the cast and crew for a few days, they agreed to put down their glasses of wine and walk on set to appear in this film. Those roles were very small but, due to their aforementioned pedigree/audience awareness, the studio's marketing department has found a way to magnify their perceived importance while still remaining "true" to their actual importance. If they could have, they would have made this poster just a giant close-up of Queen Latifah and Terence Howard with their hands outstretched, and all the other cast members sitting in their open palms like tiny little bugs. But, because that would mean never receiving another favor from Queen Latifah and Terence Howard again (and because it looks like they weren't able to get those two actors to appear in a photo shoot for this poster), they've been exiled to this icy, ornamental prison, where they can only gaze meaningfully at the main cast but are powerless to intercede.
I am a very big fan of this kind of movie marketing. The very first example I can remember (though I'm sure there were many that preceded this) was in 1984, for a film called Best Defense. The film starred Dudley Moore who, at 50-something years old and incomprehensibly British to most, was not a huge draw. However, another actor in the film, Eddie Murphy, was pretty popular in 1984 which is why, though Murphy only appeared in the movie for a couple of minutes, and never shared any screen time with Dudley Moore, the movie poster looked like this:
At least Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise had the good taste to leave Anthony Edwards off their poster, instead of exploiting his tiny "strategic guest star" role. (appearing as a ghostly vision?)
The Best Defense marketing tactic has a reflexive corollary as well, when a movie's main star is significantly more marketable than his or her co-stars. Remember the Jamie Foxx movie, Breakin' All the Rules? Me neither, but I'll bet Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut remember the movie poster, in which (though they were equally billed with Foxx) they only appear as reflections in Jamie Foxx's sunglass lenses. Jamie Foxx's mini-dreads have more poster real estate than either of his co-stars. I wonder how many managers were fired after this poster was printed?
All of this reminds me of something kind of unrelated, except in that it's another movie that was probably heavily advertised in my neighborhood. If all of these PG romantic comedies marketed to black audiences could be distilled down to one perfect and defining moment, I would choose the final scene from Deliver Us from Eva. Not because it's the most earnest or the most true moment, but because it has LL Cool J riding a white horse down the middle of the street in downtown Chicago. I actually tried to find that scene on YouTube but couldn't. I suspect that's only because if that scene were unleashed onto the Web there would be no need to see anything else on the Internet, ever. It would be the online community equivalent of Wim Wender's warning in his film, Until the End of the World, that if we could see our own dreams, we might never need or want to see anything else again.