Bumpy takeoff for ‘Soul Plane’

Times Staff Writer

The “first black-owned airline” has barely lifted off, but a determined campaign is already underway to ground it, or at least clip its wings.

“Soul Plane,” the hip-hop-flavored comedy opening in more than 1,500 theaters nationally today about fictional NWA Airlines, has already run into cultural turbulence inside the African American creative community, igniting heated arguments that illustrate the lack of consensus among blacks when it comes to comic stereotypes and the depiction of African American culture in film and television.

Declaring in a recent speech that “Soul Plane” is “coonery and buffoonery,” Spike Lee is one of a number of entertainment figures saying that the film is among the most offensive ever in terms of showing African Americans in a negative light. Their protests are mostly based on the R-rated film’s trailer, advertising campaign and early drafts of the script.


Other actors, writers and directors have called “Soul Plane” a modern-day minstrel show and a throwback to films in the 1940s and 1950s, when blacks were mostly shown as lazy clowns. The South Los Angeles-based National Alliance for Positive Action has aimed its protest at MGM, the studio behind the film. “Soul Plane” is the latest in a slate of urban-based films being developed by MGM after the crossover success of the studio’s 2001 release “Barbershop.”

“There is definitely a feeling in the community that this is the film that really does cross the line, that doesn’t have any conscience whatsoever,” said Lee Bailey, publisher and executive producer of the Electronic Urban Report, a website linked to the “Radioscope” entertainment program.

But the makers of “Soul Plane” and other supporters say that it is a brash and wild comedy in the vein of “Airplane!” or “Saturday Night Live” and that those who find it insulting are taking the jokes too seriously.

“First and foremost, this is a comedy that is an equal opportunity offender,” said Peter Adee, MGM’s president of world wide marketing.” “It takes shots at everyone.”

Jessy Terrero, a music video director making his directing feature debut with “Soul Plane,” said, “I’m part of Generation X, part of the hip-hop culture, and I just wanted to make a good comedy for my generation. I don’t see this as a movie about race, it’s a movie about class.” Terrero said he cut out many of an early script’s jokes about race.

“Soul Plane” is the latest in a series of black-oriented movies and TV shows where questions of taste and appropriateness have provoked controversy. Some of the images and language have been attacked by performers such as Bill Cosby, while others have celebrated the pushing of the cultural envelopes.


The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in 2002 threatened to stage a boycott against “Barbershop” because of jokes about Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Though “Bringing Down the House” was a hit with black and white audiences, some African Americans criticized some of Queen Latifah’s more outrageous antics. Several black groups staged marches in protesting UPN’s “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a comedy about a slave in the Lincoln White House. And Lee himself came under some fire for his 2000 film “Bamboozled,” which used the popularity of a televised minstrel show to poke fun at racism.

“Soul Plane’s” dominant image in the trailer and advertising is a purple-colored plane equipped with hydraulics that allow it to bounce like a lowrider. NWA Airlines is based at Malcolm X Terminal, which is also home for a “99 cent” store and a basketball court.

Passengers in “low class” snack on fried chicken and sip malt liquor out of 40-ounce bottles. There’s a dance club and a craps table on board. Several of the boarders are sex-crazed, including one excited couple who take the “mile-high” club to new heights inside -- and outside -- the plane.

The “pilot” (rapper Snoop Dogg) hired at the last minute has no idea how to fly a plane but has no trouble getting “high” in the cockpit. The “N-word” is sprinkled liberally throughout the film.

Actress Anne-Marie Johnson, the national chairwoman of the equal employment opportunity branch of the Screen Actors Guild, said the filmmakers and cast have no respect for the “scars ‘Soul Plane’ leaves on the culture. It’s all about the ‘right now.’ ”

Johnson, who starred in the 1987 comedy “Hollywood Shuffle,” which makes fun of black stereotypes in Hollywood, added: “Nothing has changed since ‘Hollywood Shuffle.’ In fact, it’s gotten worse. And we don’t have time for this.”

Despite the furor, “Soul Plane” has more than its share of defenders on board, calling the attacks short-sighted and off-base. They say “Soul Plane” is a comedy with attitude that merely points out differences within and between cultures.

“Why are black people so insecure?” asked Walter Latham, the creator behind the successful “The Original Kings of Comedy” tour and film that featured Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley and Steve Harvey.

Latham, who is developing other comedy tours, TV and film projects, added: “We put so much energy into criticizing films like this instead of addressing what’s really relevant, such as our economic state. Black people should accept the fact that our heritage is different, and we should embrace who we are as a people. If there was a black airline, they probably would serve ribs and collard greens. That’s who we are.”

Jawn Murray, whose review of “Soul Plane” appears on the Electronic Urban Report website, wrote: “... Forget what you’ve heard and the gripes Spike Lee might have. This movie is a laugh-out-loud good time from takeoff to landing.”

In fact, the only point of agreement between the camps is that “Soul Plane” is likely to have a successful opening weekend. Though it will be competing against the new “The Day After Tomorrow” and the “Shrek 2” powerhouse, the heavily promoted comedy will virtually have its target teen and young adult market all to itself.

Ironically, “Soul Plane” is opening on the same day as “Baadasssss!,” directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles about the behind-the-scenes making of the groundbreaking black 1970s film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” made by his father, Melvin Van Peebles.

The film opens in just a few theaters this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, has received high praise from black and white critics for its insightful look at blacks in Hollywood and the influence of “Sweet Sweetback” on urban cinema and independent film.

In addition to Snoop Dogg, “Soul Plane” stars comedian Kevin Hart, Method Man, Mo’Nique, and D.L. Hughley. Tom Arnold plays one of the few white characters -- a bumbling vacationer named Elvis Hunkee whose young girlfriend, Barbara (Missi Pyle), becomes attracted to a black male passenger who brags about his anatomical gifts.

Independent filmmaker Jordan Walker-Pearlman (“The Visit”) said he heard rumblings before “Soul Plane” started production about performers who were nervous about auditioning. “They were really caught, worried whether the material was subversive or offensive,” said Walker-Pearlman, who is making another independent film, “Constellation,” a drama about a black family in the Deep South.

The cultural rift over “Soul Plane” is indicative of a generational gap that becomes more dramatic with the growing prominence of hip-hop culture, Bailey said.

“What we’re seeing with ‘Soul Plane’ is a real generational divide,” he said. “The young people who are the target for this film didn’t grow up in the era of civil rights. They cannot even remotely relate. It’s all about having a party.”

The Rev. William S. Epps of the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles said he encounters the lack of historical cultural awareness among his congregation and has established classes where churchgoers young and old can learn more about their heritage.

“Because of the plight of black people in this country and our continuing struggle, it’s harder for older people to accept these negative images even when they’re meant to be satirical. There is a lack of appreciation among young black people about the sacrifices that have been made in order for them to have the lifestyle and freedom which makes these kinds of films possible.”

Meanwhile, the creative forces behind “Soul Plane” say they are befuddled by the controversy. Said Paul Hall, an African American who is one of the film’s executive producers: “This is just like ‘American Pie.’ It’s targeted for a younger broad market.”

Chuck Wilson, one of the film’s writers, said too much importance was being placed on the shoulders of “Soul Plane.”

“I feel that we as African Americans should have evolved well beyond the point where one movie or a group of movies can define us,” said Wilson, who is black. “White filmmakers can make Dumb and Dumber’ and ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ But that’s not a statement on all white people. This movie ‘White Chicks’ [starring the Wayans brothers] is coming out, but that’s not making fun of all white girls.”