Friday, February 16, 2018

African American Movie Churches: Comedians

Coming to America (1988) and Which Way is Up? (1977)

Any serious list of comedians from the last four decades would include the names Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Any amusing list of comedians would include them as well. Many critics call Pryor the greatest standup comedian of all time, and the financial success of Murphy’s films put him on the list of top ten money-makers of all time. Both have received the Mark Twain Prize for Humor from the Kennedy Center -- Pryor taking the first in 1998. And both have made films that feature clergy.

Murphy is credited with the story of 1988’s Coming to America, in which a pampered African prince, Akeem, comes to America (thus the title) to find his bride. Talk show host Arsenio Hall plays Akeem’s servant. Both Murphy and Hall play multiple roles.

One of Hall’s roles is Reverend Brown. Akeem asks a local where he can meet nice women in America (particularly in Queens, New York). He is told his odds are best at the library, at a church, or at the upcoming Black Awareness rally, hosted by Reverend Brown.

The concept of the rally is a little puzzling to me. All of the attendees seem to be African Americans, so you’d think they’d be aware of Blackness, but what do I know? Still, we soon learn that along with raising pigmentation awareness, they seem to be raising money for a local playground.

We see the Reverend Brown is the M.C. standing alongside a dozen lovely women in bikinis, and he gives a creepy little speech: “You know I didn’t come to preach to you today. But when I look at these contestants for the Miss Black Awareness Pageant, I feel good. I feel good ‘cause I know there’s a God somewhere. Turn around for me, ladies, please. You know there’s a God who sits on high and looks down low. Man can not make it like this. Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner, they can take a picture, but they can’t make it. Only God above, the Hugh Hefner on high, can make it for you. Do you love him? Do you feel joy? Can I get an Amen? Don’t be ashamed to call on His Name. I don’t know what you come to do, but I come to praise His Name.”

So I guess we do end up with a bit of a sermon along with extremely obnoxious objectification of women. (He says about the contestants, “Woman, you look so good, someone should put you on a plate and sop you up with a biscuit.”)

The Reverend does make one other appearance in the film, at an engagement party of a kind. It’s the kind where the bride-to-be (or not), Lisa, had no intention of marrying her lazy, obnoxious boyfriend, Daryl, but he surprises her at the party with a proposal. (Lisa’s father was aware the proposal was coming...It’s why he threw the party in the first place.)

The Reverend Brown takes time out from leering at almost every woman at the party to encourage Lisa to wed Daryl, though he doesn’t seem to know either of them very well, saying,

“I want you and that young man to tie the knot. And pray for the help of the God that helped Joshua fight the battle of Jericho, and helped Daniel escape the lion and helped Gilligan get off the island.” (The audience, on the other hand, knows Lisa should not be with Daryl, but rather with Akeem since he’s the hero of the film.)

If the film were made in the current climate, the Reverend Brown’s attitude toward women would be even more severely judged (I hope). He did try to get that playground built, though, so I’ll allow him two steeples out of the possible four.

(In Coming to America, the prince comes from the fictional African nation of Zamunda. It just so happens that tomorrow we'll write about seeing a different film with a different fictional African nation 
in tomorrow's bar post.)

The Reverend Lenox Thomas in 1977’s Which Way Is Up? definitely deserves an even lower rating. Like Hall and Murphy in Coming to America, Pryor plays multiple roles in addition to the Reverend including an everyman named Leroy Jones and Leroy’s father, Rufus. (I found it interesting to learn that Pryor’s full name is Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor, so his actual name includes the film’s pastor’s name.)

The film is based on Lina Wertmuller’s film, The Seduction of Mimi. In this version, Leroy is a working man thrust by circumstance into a battle between a business and a labor union. The Affiliated Farm Workers Movement seems to be primarily Hispanic and Roman Catholic, with images of the Virgin Mary prominent on their protest signs.

After accidentally joining the union (slapstick is involved), Leroy meets a beautiful union organizer, Vanetta (Lonette McKee). Leroy is married, but he falls in love with her and fathers her child.

Though Leroy has himself been unfaithful, he is outraged when he learns that his wife is also carrying another man’s child, and even more so when he discovers the father is the Rev. Thomas.He calls the clergyman “potbellied” among other vulgar and racially charged expletives that I can’t quote here (but if you know the work of Richard Pryor, you can make some accurate guesses). His wife, Annie Mae, says she went to the Reverend for spiritual comfort because she was lonely, and the Reverend provided more personal comfort.

Leroy goes to Thomas’s, the 7th Lucky Church of Eternal Salvation (the church sign promises a healing service every weekend). An all-ladies choir is singing, “Thank You, Jesus,” with the Reverend on guitar.

After their song, he launches into a sermon on sin and lust. “Sin and lust lead to high blood pressure! To tooth decay! You get all of these things when you sin and lust. I have no decay in my mouth because I don’t sin or lust. I must admit my lovely and devoted wife, Sister Sarah, had one cavity but that was from a childhood incident many years before she met me. But I cleansed her of her sin, and the cavity filled itself.”

Leroy seethes as he listens to the sermon and plots his revenge. He goes to Sister Sarah, for piano lessons and attempts to seduce her.

At first, she resists, but Leroy forces himself on her, and (ew) eventually wins her over. She tells him, “I’m not a total fool; she knows the Reverend cheats on her. She uses Leroy to get some revenge of her own.

Leroy goes back to church on the night of a healing service. The Reverend is confronted by a man with a crippled leg and says, “That’s a lot to ask for two dollars. I might be able to help you on Christmas Eve. Now go take a seat next to that blind fellow.”

Leroy says he needs healing. “You look pretty healthy to me,” the Reverend says, but Leroy continues.

“I need to confess,”

“Confess to the congregation, the Lord loves the truth,” Reverend Thomas tells him.

Leroy’s confession is, “You slept with my wife.”

The Reverend tells Leroy, “Sit down before I lay this glove on your [hindquarters].”

Instead, Sister Sarah stands and says “You have wronged this man, and wronged me too. But now I bear his child. An eye for an eye, a baby for a baby.”

Other women stand to admit they, too, slept with Reverend Thomas. The congregation chases him out of the church and into the street, where he’s hit by a tram and, in the words of Leroy, is “flat as day old beer.”

Dead or alive, we at Movie Churches are not at all impressed with the Reverend Thomas, and we give him our lowest rating of one steeple.

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