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Rock in a Hard Place

The comedian faces a classic African-American dilemma.

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death at a funeral directed by neil labute

If you've seen the moderately funny British farce Death at a Funeral (2007), you won't find many surprises in the equally funny U.S. remake from producer and star Chris Rock. It's nearly a scene-for-scene duplicate—in fact, the only screenwriter credited is the British one, Dean Craig. Rock and director Neil LaBute have merely stripped out the British actors and replaced them with big African-American stars, including Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Zoe Saldana, and Danny Glover. The funniest new gag, dreamed up by Rock on set, is set up by the racial shift: In a middle-class Los Angeles home, an African-American family has gathered to bury its patriarch, and one of the few white guests, played by James Marsden, has accidentally ingested LSD. Spotting the dead man's large and dignified widow, Marsden eagerly approaches her, grabs both her arms, and treats her to a soulful and painfully patronizing rendition of "Amazing Grace."

But this joke is one of the few times we see Rock thinking about race at all. Of the five movies he has now produced as starring vehicles for himself, three have been remakes of movies that starred white actors—before Death at a Funeral he did Down to Earth (2001), a remake of Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (1978); and I Think I Love My Wife (2007), a remake of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon (1972). Interspersed with these have been two sharp and incisive movies about the African-American experience: Head of State (2003), a wacky political satire with Rock as the first black man to win the White House, and Good Hair (2009), a fascinating comic documentary about the black hair care industry. As Rock zigzags from one category to the other, he seems to be reliving in a single career the same conflict that's animated African-American theater for decades: whether to embrace the white European dramatic tradition or establish a new tradition that speaks to black social concerns.

One can trace this dichotomy at least as far back as the 1930s, when the Negro Theatre Unit was formed as part of the Federal Theatre Project. As conceived by the white producer John Houseman (who became a star 40 years later playing the imperious Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase), the unit had two distinct programs: black productions of classic works and new plays that were authentic to the black experience. African-Americans had been performing the classics since 1821, when the pioneering African Company staged Othello and Richard III, and during the Harlem Renaissance the popular Lafayette Players had presented such white perennials as The Count of Monte Cristo and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But these projects all paled in comparison with the Negro Theatre Unit's 1936 production of Macbeth, whose 20-year-old director, Orson Welles, had transposed the play to 19th-century Haiti during the reign of Emperor Henri Christophe.

The "Voodoo Macbeth," as it came to be called, was a sensation in New York, but the many white critics who focused on the play's cultural exotica unintentionally exposed the central flaw of such productions: they were conceived for white audiences, who enjoyed them mostly for their novelty. (The same phenomenon would rear its head 20 years later when Oscar Hammerstein II turned Verdi'sBizet's opera Carmen into the southern-fried Carmen Jones.) The Negro Theatre Unit had produced numerous works by aspiring black playwrights, but a truly great African-American theater wouldn't emerge until the civil rights era, when writers like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, and Charles Gordone addressed the African-American experience in all its contradictions and complexity.

Related Film

Death at a Funeral

Official Site: www.deathatafuneral-movie.com

Director: Neil LaBute

Producer: Sidney Kimmel, William Horberg, Chris Rock, Share Stallings, Laurence Malkin, Jim Tauber, Dean Craig, Glenn S. Gainor and Bruce Toll

Cast: Keith David, Loretta Devine, Peter Dinklage, Ron Glass, Danny Glover, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Zoë Saldaña, Columbus Short, Luke Wilson, Regine Nehy and Bob Minor

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