Last year when I was reviewing the campaign for Marshall I was a bit surprised to see it was directed by Reginald Hudlin. That was a name I realized I hadn’t really caught in a few years. Looking into what he’s been up to a bit yielded an even bigger surprise: That he hadn’t directed a feature film 15 years. He hasn’t been idle, directing a lot of TV in that time, but here was one of the brightest, most promising directors of the early 1990s and he can’t get a feature gig? It was an important reminder that while we are absolutely having a necessary conversation about the opportunities given to women we also need to be mindful that men and women of color are often shut out of “mainstream” entertainment opportunities as well.
Since I didn’t get to it at the time around Marshall’s release, I’m taking this opportunity to correct and oversight and look at the trailers for Hudlin’s feature directorial work. While the movies may not always be revered as classics, he certainly had a knack for quick-witted comedy, though he was too often asked to try to serve a trend or movement Hollywood was trying to make happen despite all logic. Thankfully he seems to be gaining a bit of theatrical momentum, with last year’s Marshall and the news he would be directing Shadowman, an adaptation of a Valiant Comics character. So using that as an excuse to take a look at the director’s history to date, let’s dive in.
Serving Sara (2002)
In 2002 “Friends” was a nearing the end of its run and the cast was trying to branch out a bit, turning their small-screen success into a big-screen career. Studios were happy to oblige, putting the various actors in a series of bland comedies. Here Matthew Perry stars Joe Tyler, a process server sent to Texas to serve Sara Moore (Elizabeth Hurley) divorce papers. She makes a deal with him to turn things around on her husband, beginning a series of hijinks and shenanigans that include efforts by fellow server Kate (Amy Adams, reminding us how funny she really is) to undermine him.
The trailer lays out most of that premise but is more concerned with sight gags of people stepping in cow shit or Hurley’s character accidentally becoming undressed. It’s not super compelling and doesn’t play up Hudlin’s involvement, but if you watch other clips you get a sense of a movie that’s a lot sharper-edged than this trailer would have you believe
The Ladies Man (2000)
Another case of Hudlin being asked to help Hollywood keep something going. This was roughly the end of the decade-long attempt to turn every recurring “Saturday Night Live” character into a feature film and of course a black director is called into action for one of the few black characters to get the nod. Tim Meadows (one of our tragically underrated modern comedians) is once more Leon Phelps, the Courvoisier-drinking, smooth-talking host of a romantic help show. Experiencing a run of bad luck, Leon is searching for a former lover offering to care for him while ducking a group of the husbands of the women he’s slept with.
Almost none of that is on display in the trailer, which is more concerned with just showing Leon wooing the ladies. We do see there are a bunch of guys very upset with him, but their motivations aren’t made clear. More than anything, the story is presented as being about Leon’s search for the woman of his dreams. It’s interesting looking back on it that many of the cuckolds are white, a not-so-subtle use of the long-standing fear of black men corrupting our pure and virtuous white women. I guess this kind of thing was still…cool?…back at the turn of the century.
The Great White Hype (1996)
Boxing was still a pretty popular mainstream thing in the mid- to late-90s and so co-writer Ron Shelton – who was known for his sports-themed movies – decided to lean into that. The story involves James ‘The Grim Reaper’ Roper (Damon Wayans), a fighter who’s on autopilot, easily dispatching any challengers to his heavyweight title. To breathe new life and regain audience interest, promoter Reverend Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson, giving one of his heavily-mannered, over-the-top performances that’ still works, dammit) decides he needs XX to go up against a white fighter. He digs up former champ Terry Conklin (Peter Berg, playing Woody Harrelson), who has a history with Roper.
That dynamic, as well as Roper’s “don’t give a damn” attitude and Jackson’s scenery-chewing are all on significant display in the trailer, which follows the story more or less linearly. Race is shown to be the driving force behind most all the gags here, which isn’t surprising given the premise and the title.
My personal favorite of Hudlin’s filmography and what I think *is* an underrated classic. Eddie Murphy (not yet consigned to “family” comedy purgatory) stars as Marcus, a successful advertising executive who’s also an inveterate ladies man, wooing one beautiful woman after another. A corporate merger gives him a new boss, Jacqueline (Robin Givens), who he soon finds is a female version of himself, ready to use him for sex and little else. Eventually he finds his true soulmate isn’t the stunning Jacqueline but her assistant Angela (Halle Berry) because that’s how romantic comedies work.
The trailer is framed around a conversation Marcus is having with his friends Gerard and Tyler (David Alan Grier and Martin Lawrence) about how romantic Marcus is or isn’t. He insists he’s super-romantic, just bored after the pursuit has proven successful and he sleeps with a woman. We see some of the dynamic with Jacqueline and how that turns the tables on Marcus, but mostly it’s about presenting a smooth-talking cad. While the wonderful performances by both Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones are missing entirely (a shame), we do get a bit of John Witherspoon as Gerard’s dad, which is worth it. Surprisingly, Hudlin isn’t significantly name-dropped here, despite the fact this was his sophomore film after his big breakout.
House Party (1990)
Hudlin’s first film, based on a short he’d directed, House Party was a starring vehicle for rap duo Kid ‘n Play, who star as a pair of friends who throw a massive party that attracts all kinds of attention and grows well beyond its original intent, as such things do. While Hudlin wrote the script as well, it’s essentially a vehicle for the rappers to bring their comedic personas to the screen with a bunch of hijinks. This was one of the first in a wave of movies that starred black pop culture icons and which sought to serve both that audience and crossover with white audiences.
The trailer doesn’t have any real narrative flow or anything. It’s just a series of crazy situations Kid in particular finds himself in, from the party to a run-in with a school bully and so on. But it announced the arrival of a significant cinematic talent, one that’s gone underutilized by Hollywood in the subsequent 28 years.