November 09, 2011

Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy

Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy

Six years ago, Eddie Murphy proposed taking Ocean’s Eleven and inverting it. An all-black cast would play Trump Tower servants who join forces to steal tens of millions from their overbearing boss. And rather than be ace criminals, they’d be bumbling, law-abiding citizens who have to learn their new craft on the fly.

Producer Brian Grazer and widely despised director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) immediately started kicking around names such as Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Jamie Foxx to team with Murphy in Tower Heist. Over the years, they paid a dozen or so top screenwriters to take a whack at this story. But Hollywood’s finest were repeatedly stumped. 

First, it’s hard to truly hate Donald Trump. The man has been around forever and folks have grown fond of him. He was written into Gremlins 2 way back in 1990 as the rich bad guy (Daniel Clamp, owner of Clamp Center), yet he still wound up one of that movie’s heroes. 

Second, if we’re all supposed to agree that greed isn’t good anymore, it’s hard to justify thievery. Eventually, Ted Griffin (screenwriter of the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven) solved these problems by changing the villain’s persona from Donald Trumplike to Bernie Madoffish. The financier (Alan Alda) has stolen the pension funds the building’s staff had entrusted to him. The working-class heroes then break into his penthouse to look for his stash of getaway cash so they can reimburse their coworkers.

“Audiences don’t want to pay money to see people like themselves. They wish to imagine living in Trump Tower, not working there.”

Third, the market for all-black movies has shrunk since Murphy’s Coming to America was 1988’s third-biggest smash. In recent years, black-dominated casts have triumphed at the box office mostly in nostalgic musicals such as Dreamgirls and Ray.

Still, African-Americans have developed their own ethnic cinema, something that Latinos and Asians in this country haven’t accomplished. The trade-off, however, is that “all-black cast” is now associated more with downscale Tyler Perry movies than with blockbusters. 

Foreign audiences are notoriously uninterested in all-black movies. American Hispanics, who increasingly dominate domestic audiences, share this global distaste. This doesn’t mean that there is no work for black actors, only that Hollywood has had to expend a huge amount of ingenuity over the years contriving black-white buddy movies (or, for Rush Hour, black-Chinese buddy movies).

Fourth, African-American men seldom work anymore in servile jobs. They find such employment unmanly. Of course, many immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa labor in luxury co-ops and hotels, but when was the last time you’ve had an American-born black waiter who wasn’t obviously gay? Whites are now uncomfortable hiring black American men for jobs requiring domestic access, whether due to white guilt, fear of black dishonesty, or both.

After the modestly budgeted period piece The Help earned $167 million domestically, it’s now clear that the solution should have been to set Tower Heist at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, the downstairs to Mad Men‘s upstairs.


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