Death at a Funeral

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.

Hansberry was the most celebrated, but even she rebelled almost immediately against being straitjacketed as the Voice of Her People. After her first play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), was embraced by critics and audiences across the country, Hansberry might well have capitalized on its success with another play celebrating the hopes and dreams of working-class African-Americans. Instead she wrote The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964), which was set in Greenwich Village and took dead aim at the comfortable delusions of white liberals. (It was a milieu she knew well, having been married for ten years to songwriter Robert Nemiroff.) The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a wonderful play, every bit as tough and compassionate as A Raisin in the Sun, but its original Broadway production closed after a modest 101 performances, and it’s rarely staged anymore.

Rock has shown the same reluctance to be pigeonholed by his color, and an even greater reluctance to dilate on past oppression. Plugging his new movie on Real Time With Bill Maher, he joked that he wasn’t interested in any kind of period piece that predated the Jackson 5. “Amazing Grace” notwithstanding, Death at a Funeral doesn’t trade much in racial humor, and because the family is decidedly upscale, Rock and LaBute forfeit the one aspect of black funerals most often parodied in movies—the women’s ostentatious displays of grief. One of the family (Saldana) arrives at the ceremony with her white fiance (Marsden) and deflects the romantic advances of a former boyfriend who’s also white (Luke Wilson), but the movie is refreshingly unconcerned with the fact that they’re interracial relationships. In an interview for the Web site CanMag, Rock presented the movie in strictly postracial terms: “This is a movie for absolutely everybody. That’s what I think. Big, great cast. Black, white. All the black people that aren’t in a Tyler Perry right now are in the movie.”

Ironically, the only actor from the original who hasn’t been replaced is the one who isn’t absolutely everybody: Peter Dinklage, playing a mysterious fellow who shows up at the funeral with shocking secrets about the deceased. A wonderful actor, Dinklage first made a name for himself as the morose and resentful dwarf in Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent, a role that was written with him in mind. Through sheer force of talent he’s begun to get good roles that aren’t keyed to his appearance, but this isn’t one of them. Like Rock, he’s had to find a middle ground between who he is and what people want him to be. Call it the short man’s burden.