Moving Pictures
Jun 07, 2023, 06:29AM

Sleeping with the Enemy

Revisiting White Chicks and remembering seeing it opening weekend in 2004.

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In the history of cinema, there’ve been half a dozen or so years that stand tall above the rest: 1939, 1941, 1959, 1972, 1999, 2004, and most recently, 2019. These years had everything: masterpieces, smash hits, infamous bombs that were reappraised, infamous bombs that never stood a chance, movies from beloved and/or reviled auteurs, event movies, major controversies, and most important, a non-stop spigot of compelling films. I may have been going to the movies in 1999, but I was six going on seven-years-old, so I missed most of these era-defining films in theaters: The Matrix, American Pie, American Beauty, Magnolia, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Cruel Intentions. (I did see Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soon after, but on video). But you better believe I saw Wild Wild West and went straight to Burger King after for whatever promotion they were running (an early attempt at “chicken fries” if memory serves). And as I’ve written before, I saw Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace nine times in theaters. Toy Story 2 was that same summer, but for the most part, my experience of 1999 in film was qualified.

2004 was a different story. By then, I was going every weekend and reading criticism and scouring websites like Ain’t It Cool News, Box Office Mojo, and DVDBeaver. In late-May, I ended up as editor of our middle school paper, despite the fact that I was in fifth grade and everyone else was a girl in eighth grade. I don’t remember what work we got done, but I vividly recall pulling up the summer release calendar and showing it to them. One of them asked “What’s Napoleon Dynamite?” I said I had no idea and it would probably bomb and disappear forever. The year started off with an event movie, something controversial that spills over into mainstream discourse. In 2019, it was Joker; in 2004, it was The Passion of the Christ.

Released within a week of Napoleon Dynamite, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 finally broke the dam on documentaries—it’s easy to forget that before Moore’s two smash hits early in the 2000s, documentaries weren’t popular in America. They had the same association as “foreign films,” cinematic vegetables no one would voluntarily swallow. He may not have swung the election, but he did make an entire genre of cinema profitable and popular. It was a decisive year across the world, and cinema kept up—there are so many films I saw that year that are still remembered, referenced, treasured, and despised. It was a year that had every kind of movie, and the one I’m writing about today was the always welcome how the fuck did anyone think this was a good idea and get it made? White Chicks.

I didn’t like White Chicks when I saw it that summer in a packed matinee at the Towson Commons 8. Keenan Ivory Wayans’ film was too crude and full of bathroom humor—and that’s what I said at the time. Shawn and Marlon Wayans’ makeup is so grotesque that it makes all the food and fat and lactose intolerance jokes even more disgusting, and for such an incendiary premise, it doesn’t go that far. The Wayans are FBI agents, and the film opens with them bungling an arrest—while disguised as Mexicans. This is the black Soul Man, a film where two black men go undercover as spoiled white women in the Hamptons. John Heard, improbably, appears as a corrupt socialite, along with Terry Crews, playing an impossibly horny guy obsessed with one of the girls. “Tiffany” tries to scare him off by eating plate after plate of rich, pungent food, but he’s undeterred.

I know I would’ve liked the movie more if it had less perfunctory plot and more riffing on white women stereotypes and white women racism. Perhaps the most potent scene in the film involves the “sisters” taking a ride with their “best friends,” and trying to keep their cover, they do their best to sing along to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” Then the radio switches to a rap song, and the “sisters” sing the N word along with it. Their “friends” are appalled, but quickly realizing their mistake, the “sisters” assure them, “Well… no one’s around! Who’s gonna know?” The girls think about it for about two seconds and then gleefully sing along, slurs and all.

The film’s commentary on white women isn’t nearly as sharp as Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, from just a few years earlier and starring another Wayans brother, Damon. While Lee’s film was a blistering panoramic satire on American racism, White Chicks is a summer studio comedy—perhaps I shouldn't expect something as scathing as Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) telling one of his network’s young female Jewish writers that “just because you got black dick in college, doesn’t make you an expert.” White Chicks is dealing with much of the same tetchy dynamics between white women and black people, and it’s notable that there are zero racist white male villains in the film: John Heard is embezzling funds, he probably couldn’t care less if his daughter dates a black man.

Many of the same critics who panned Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo in 1975, like Roger Ebert, dismissed White Chicks as racist trash, missing the point completely. Mandingo is a brutal film, and one that depicts genocidal racism, but it’s not racist. Every joke in White Chicks is at the expense of white women, particularly spoiled white women. Remember, this was at the height of Paris Hilton’s reality television fame, when grown men like Trey Parker and Matt Stone constructed an entire episode of South Park around her simply because she started advertising Guess jeans. That November, I watched “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” the night it aired, an episode where Hilton hocks junk to kids and constantly coughs up semen into her hand.

White Chicks is Disney by comparison. You have white women “acting hysterical,” being dumb, breaking down over their appearance and weight, but because the Wayans are disguised throughout, there’s never an opportunity for any “jungle fever” jokes (unlike Soul Plane, released a few months earlier). On the contrary: Terry Crews pursues “Tiffany” precisely because she’s a “white girl with a black girl’s ass,” and when Marlon Wayans finally pulls off his hideous disguise, Crews is upset, but not because he’s a guy, but because he’s black. He wanted to sleep with a white girl, and he ended up accidentally sleeping with his androgynous male assistant.

This movie endures as a “cult classic,” but I remember it going over like gangbusters on that Saturday afternoon in 2004. I may not have liked it at the time, but not because it was “racist”—more than anything, I wanted it to be funnier, meaner, and more pointed. Instead, White Chicks is about as sophisticated a comedy as any of Adam Sandler’s 1990s work, a provocative concept that never fully delivers. Dozens and dozens of movies from 2004 may still be watched, but none deserve a sequel as much as White Chicks. Imagine what the Wayans could do with the last 19 years, especially now that Hilton has left the zeitgeist. White Chicks could’ve been the proper answer to the abomination that is Soul Man—instead, its most enduring legacy is likely inspiring Robert Downey, Jr. to don blackface in 2008’s Tropic Thunder

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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