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September 2004

By Julian Roman

The Cookout

Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Director: Lance Rivera
Producer: Darryl "Latee" French
Screenwriters: Stephanie Marquardt
Cast: Queen Latifah, Quara Pender, Ja Rule, Danny Glover, & Jenifer Lewis




This review is an indictment of black mainstream films in Hollywood. It's time to drop all pretenses and call out the people inundating us with an unrelenting stream of cinematic garbage. We're almost back to the era of shucking and jiving with the absolute stupidity coming our way. Blame everyone; corporations, studios, actors, producers, singers, rappers, they're all responsible for the pathetic state we find ourselves in. There won't be any political correctness involved in this tirade. I'm going to use The Cookout as an example of the average "product" being marketed towards the urban demographic (i.e. blacks and Latinos). Let's analyze why this film was made and where a good idea gets completely bastardized by the system. The gloves have been removed.

The movie business is like any other business on the planet. It's all about turning a profit. Movies are incredibly expensive to make. Millions of dollars are needed to produce, market, and distribute even the smallest film. Studios and financiers give their money to people who they believe will give them a good return on their investment. Queen Latifah has had a pretty good run at the box office as of late. Her star has risen and so has her clout. She decides to start producing movies. This is a good thing, a black woman seizing opportunity. She rallies studios to support her project, a light comedy about a newly minted basketball star and his family cookout. It sounds promising, no controversies, low-budget; a minor investment could spawn a big hit. The studio greenlights the film and Queen Latifah goes about producing it.

So what's wrong with that picture? The problem starts on the page with the movie itself. The Cookout is a good idea with a terrible script. It's the same cockamamie stereotypical nonsense we always see. Studios love this stuff. They make these movies because they're cheaply produced. They're not going to spend money on anything deemed risky. They won't support an intelligent black comedy because they know exactly what to expect from a stupid one. It'll do "X" amount of business in "X" number of theaters and sell "X" amount of DVDs. It's formulaic to the core. You'd think that the studios would roll the dice to see how much money a smart black comedy would make. They don't know, because no one has done it in recent memory. Why? That's a good question. I'll leave that for the conspiracy theorists to argue about.

Talent is the one thing that could have saved The Cookout. Talented people will make mountains out of mole hills and turn lead into gold. A horrible script can be made into a decent film if the right people are in front of and behind the camera. This is where The Cookout seals its fate. Queen Latifah gives the directing nod to Lance Rivera, the former music mogul that was famously stabbed by Jay-Z in a night club. Then she casts rappers Storm P, Eve, and Ja Rule in the lead roles. These people have no clue what they're doing. Just because you're a famous rapper and music producer doesn't mean you can act or direct yourself out of a box. She could have gone out and given this opportunity to the leagues of skilled black actors and filmmakers out there. She didn't and it's another reason why this film sucks.

The only way to change things is to embrace quality. Instead of going for the lowest common denominator, Hollywood has to go for the best. Rappers and music video directors are not the keys to box office dynamite. Most of them are talentless hacks that have no idea how to make feature narrative films. The colossal failures of films like Soul Plane should be a wake-up call for the studios. Seek out the people with talent and you can't go wrong. The film festival circuit has always been a bonanza for white filmmakers. Black filmmakers and actors are there too, but have consistently been overlooked. We're at a significant low point here. It's time that they were given a chance to make an impact. Audiences would reward better movies.