While I cannot recommend the new comedy “Meet the Blacks” on artistic grounds, as it almost completely falls flat in the humor department, a part of me hopes that it does well at the box office. Why? Because if the film makes any commercial waves, it will more likely than not initiate an important discussion on what, exactly, constitutes a parody in an era in which the line between “fair use” and lack of originality has become problematically muddled.
In case you haven’t seen a single trailer for the film—I had not, and I’m exposed to dozens of the suckers per week—I should explain that it’s modeled after the “Purge” franchise (yes, the movies in which all crime becomes legal for one night, once a year). I use the generic term “modeled” because “Meet the Blacks” is not actually a spoof, insofar as it does not make fun of anything in particular about “The Purge” or its sequel. It’s just another movie centered around the same idea that happens to also contain jokes, albeit ones that fall miserably flat.
I’ll summarize further. Mike Epps plays Carl Black, who moves his family cross-country from the South Side of Chicago to the considerably ritzier Beverly Hills (well, a less appealing Northern California city standing in for Beverly Hills) on a questionable mortgage deal. No longer haunted by the daily sound of gunfire and his past associations with gang members, Carl is convinced that he will finally experience a peaceful, uneventful Purge Night behind the pearly gates of his new 90210 community.
However, it comes as no surprise to the audience that danger, not quiet, awaits Carl and big-breasted trophy wife Lorena (Zulay Henao), defiant teen daughter Allie (Bresha Webb), and vampire-imitating young son Carl Jr. (Alex Henderson). Turns out that their new wealthy white neighbors—and a laundry list of other interlopers—are all too keen to violently target the first African-American family on the block. Cue the most obvious jokes about race and class you could possibly think up.
Having set up the essentials, I must now ask: What makes “Meet the Blacks” a parody and not a straight-up rip-off of “The Purge”? The mere fact that it contains comedy? The fact that the film will likely make so little money that it would not behoove Universal, the studio behind “The Purge,” to challenge its parody status in civil court? Legally speaking, per Stanford University Law School, parody is defined as “a work that ridicules another, usually well-known work, by imitating it in a comic way.” But “Meet the Blacks” does not aim to be comedic in its imitation; it merely imitates and additionally interjects social humor tailored to star Epps, who here once again shows an almost perverse level of commitment to a largely apathetic character.
This all being said, I’m not a legal scholar and I’m not here to make procedural arguments. If some of the heinous later installments in the “Scary Movie” franchise legally count as parodies, spoofing films with no sense of wit or intended meaning unto their own, then I’m sure “Meet the Blacks” does as well. Instead, I seek to contemplate whether this film is a parody in the artistic sense of the word, in order to further question: Is there a minimum level of creative originality required in order to justify the existence of a given motion picture?
As a critic, I tend to think that there is such a threshold, and that “Meet the Blacks,” like countless YouTube-published “re-appropriations” of popular movies, doesn’t even come close to meeting it. This is a film that was seemingly devised around its lack of financial riskiness: it could ride the coattails of a successful franchise with no licensing fees under the guise of parody, it could take place entirely in one house to keep costs under $5 million, and it could be sold directly to the African-American community by casting the popular Epps. There’s nothing to the plot: thinly drawn characters experience one Purge Night threat after the next, with stale joke after stale joke peppered in every few minutes. Epps, who has proven himself to be a talented guy when provided the right material, either doesn’t know any better or couldn’t resist the paycheck.
There are a very select few pleasures in the film, namely the cameos. Mike Tyson makes an infectiously bizarre appearance as a bouncy-castle salesman seeking to collect from debtor Carl and Perez Hilton stops by to chew the scenery as a terrifyingly credible psychopath. But these moments aside, “Meet the Blacks” proves almost offensive in its sheer lack of trying. Certain interior shots in the film look like they were lit in about five minutes, as if the technicians couldn’t be bothered to try for better, but the truly sad reality of this is: that’s still four minutes longer than it took to write the screenplay.
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