August 23, 1991
As we’ve discussed earlier in this series, the summer of ’91 was pivotal for the emerging Black film movement of the era. BOYZ N THE HOOD was the seismic event, but we also had Bill Duke directing his first theatrical feature, a new one from Spike Lee, and a heavily hyped drama made by a 19-year-old director in a Brooklyn housing project with some credit cards. So it’s only fitting that one of the last movies of the summer was a studio film from the Black director of an acclaimed indie.
Charles Lane had written, directed, and starred in a 1989 film called SIDEWALK STORIES, about a homeless artist in Greenwich Village who takes care of a little girl (played by his daughter) after her father is murdered. Partly an homage to Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID, it’s silent except for the last scene. Roger Ebert loved it, it was nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for best director, first feature and male lead, and according to Wikipedia it won the audience prize at Cannes, though I haven’t been able to verify this. The point is, it was respected.
So here we are three years later and Lane is directing a major Touchstone Pictures comedy with the very mainstream premise “What if a Black guy had to pretend to be a white guy?” It stars the British comedian Lenny Henry (BERNARD AND THE GENIE) and is written by Andy Breckman, a (white) Late Night With David Letterman and SNL writer who had scripted MOVING, ARTHUR 2: ON THE ROCKS and HOT TO TROT.
Henry plays Miles Pope, a struggling New York actor who dreams of starring in Othello but instead does shit like fly to Florida to star in a raisin commercial (which his shitty agent Harvey [Michael McKean, D.A.R.Y.L.] unethically led him to believe was the lead in Raisin in the Sun). The wackiness begins with a far-fetched circumstance on the flight home: during some very violent turbulence (which leads him to run around the plane yelling “This isn’t turbulence! This is bullshit!”) the famous rich guy sitting next to him, Leland Carver (Frank Langella, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE) believes they’re going to die and confesses that he was a notorious mobster who faked his death and got plastic
Of course the plane doesn’t crash (it’s unclear why he was so convinced it would) and after they land Leland sends his mob enforcer Anthony (Andreas Katsulas, THE DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK) to find and kill Miles. So his best friend/comic relief/neighbor Duane (director Lane), who is a makeup effects artist, disguises him as a white man. The makeup is actually done by KNB EFX Group (INTRUDER, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, HALLOWEEN 5, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, CITY SLICKERS) and it looks way more convincing than is standard for this kind of comedy. Henry does a good voice for it too after they get past the jokes where he confuses people by acting like himself and calling people “brother” and stuff.
The big twist is that a hitman from out of town (Christopher Collins, who did various voices in ROVER DANGERFIELD) is sent after him, and Miles (in disguise) kills him in self defense, then convinces late arriving Anthony that he’s the hitman. So Anthony helps him stuff the other guy’s body in the trunk of a car (reminiscent of MYSTERY DATE) and Miles ends up in various situations with Anthony and Leland as he pretends to be looking for this Miles guy to kill him. Wacky things happen like they meet in a sauna and the makeup starts to drip off. (Darkman knows your pain.)
Leland in his post-faked-death persona has become a respected citizen and, in a particularly hard to buy coincidence, runs a major Shakespeare festival that’s doing a production of Othello. Miles makes the risky choice to pursue a crush on Leland’s innocent interior designer Kristi (Anne-Marie Johnson, ROBOT JOX). He first approaches her out of the white makeup and in a wig pretending to be James Brown’s fictional brother, who acts like an off brand James Brown (points for referencing Maceo). One thing you don’t usually see in comedies of this type: she doesn’t fall for it and tells him to get the fuck out. But this scene really made me think, “Oh yeah, they probly wrote this with Eddie Murphy in mind.” He even did that SNL sketch about pretending to be white.
One sorta cool thing is that J.T. Walsh (BACKDRAFT, DEFENSELESS) is in it (he’s the very first face seen in the movie) and he never turns evil! He plays Houston, an FBI agent who was pursuing Leland when he fake-died. Miles eventually convinces him of his story, but is told he’ll need evidence to convince the FBI proper. To make the gangsters believe feds are on the case he gets friends from acting class to dress up like agents and walk into his building all conspicuous-like. Their acting teacher (Bill Raymond, CHRISTMAS EVIL, C.H.U.D.) says, “Great job, everybody! Wonderfully… fascist!” and Houston glares at him.
In the movie’s cutest “pooling his friends’ talents” scene, white-Miles tells Leland that he finally found Miles and chopped him into pieces, and then Anthony verifies it by seeing his head and body parts strewn all over the apartment, courtesy of Duane’s FX expertise. (See also: FX2)
In the end Miles takes a big stand: although it will give away that he’s alive, he refuses to turn down an opportunity to audition for Leland’s production of Othello. He becomes the understudy to James Earl Jones (BEST OF THE BEST), who appears as himself, and actually has to fill in for him at the premiere. So he does a whole trick to expose Leland trying to have him assassinated on stage, and comes into the audience to accuse him in Shakespearean language. I always hate this type of contrived climax, but I kinda like that it prompts a lady in the audience to say, “No matter how many times I see Shakespeare I always get something new out of it.”
In a way, Lane was following a Black film tradition by playing a funny supporting role in his movie. It had also been done by Robert Townsend, James Bond III (DEF BY TEMPTATION), Matty Rich (STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN) and of course Lee. Lane is similarly diminutive and bespectacled, but not nearly as hip as Lee. His whole joke here is being a little nerdy guy who’s with a new girlfriend every time you see him.
This is not a terrible movie. It’s amusing at times, it looks pretty good, the cast is all pretty good (although Henry’s accent comes out occasionally). But it’s very middle-of-the-road, especially considering the reputation of the director. This is more of a 20th century move – director of small, idiosyncratic movie hired by studio to do big normal work-for-hire gig. That’s not at all the trajectory of Spike Lee or John Singleton, who (at least for a while) got bigger budgets and more exposure to try to expand on the style and content they were already known for. Lane had wanted his sophomore film to be a love story between an African American man and Italian American woman called SKINS (Spike beat him to it), while Disney wanted him to remake SIDEWALK STORIES with Tom Hanks, in color, and with sound. Instead he let them talk him into doing TRUE IDENTITY.
But at least he gets to inject a little Black culture into a mainstream movie aimed at all audiences. Like characters in those other directors’ movies, Miles’ apartment has a poster of Muhammad Ali and another one of Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and MLK. He’s excited about the “seminal Black play” Raisin in the Sun. Black film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles has a cameo as a cab driver preaching about Black power in the front while Miles puts on his white makeup in the back; the premise is kind of a reverse of Van Peebles’ only studio film, WATERMELON MAN. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Lane cast HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE actress Johnson when the movie opens with Miles’ acting frustrations straight out of that movie. Forced to wear a pimp hat and talk in archaic jive for a scene in acting class, his teacher tells him he’s “not Black enough. You need to be more Afro-American. More Harlem-esque.” When he angrily responds by doing the lines as a cartoonish racist stereotype, of course, the teacher thinks he’s serious and loves it.
But for a movie with this race-switching premise it really avoids the topic. The most socially aware scene is probly one pre-makeup, where he goes into the police station to report that a mobster is trying to kill him, they ignore him, then accidentally put him in a lineup (where he is accused by a white woman of being a flasher) and once the mistake is cleared up tell him they can’t help him, he has to go to the FBI for that. Once he puts the makeup on the jokes are more, like, a guy in a restroom looks over at his dick and his eyes get real wide. I suppose there’s one part where he uses his white-makeup-privilege to hail a cab for a Black man who keeps getting skipped. But that’s about it.
Notably, these mobsters who are trying to kill a Black man never express any racism toward him. And they could – it’s an R-rated movie. They deserve credit for that. This is not the impression I got of New York’s Italian-American community from JUNGLE FEVER earlier in the summer.
Although I was happy to see Walsh, Jones and especially Van Peebles in this, the biggest surprise was in a hacky scene where white-Miles is confronted by three Street Tuffs for walking in a “bad neighborhood,” and the one who says something like, “Hey, you could get hurt comin around here, white boy” is god damn Michael Jai White! It’s his fourth movie, after THE TOXIC AVENGER 2 and 3 and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II and he’s credited as “Alley Guy #1: Michael White.”
TRUE IDENTITY got pretty poor reviews comparing it to a sitcom, and earned less than a third of its budget at the box office. On the positive side, it made the cover of Jet. But the failure stalled Lane’s directing career, perhaps permanently. IMDb lists his only subsequent credit as a 1993 episode of American Playhouse (reuniting him with James Earl Jones). A 2014 article about renewed interest in SIDEWALK STORIES on its 25th anniversary (and after people were reminded of it by THE ARTIST) notes that after TRUE IDENTITY flopped “work became somewhat scarce.” Lane had “worked for various production companies” and was about to start production on movies called YELLOW TAPE and HERMAN which still haven’t materialized. So to many of us Charles Lane is still best known from one of his only other acting roles: the comic relief character Weezie in Mario Van Peebles’ POSSE (1993). Since then he’s only been in a 2009 low budget horror movie called THE MIND.
The common phrase “identity politics” is an homage to the movie TRUE IDENTITY and any time anyone uses it it means that TRUE IDENTITY is their favorite comedy of all time
Pop culture references:
There’s a quick glimpse of a CHILD’S PLAY 2 billboard (this was coming out against part 3). When Miles first sees the makeup he says, “I wanted to look like Prince, you made me look like Wayne Newton!” (who was in THE DARK BACKWARD).
Although screenwriter Andy Breckman’s later films were I.Q., SGT. BILKO and RAT RACE, he does get cool points for writing episodes of TV Funhouse and other Triumph the Insult Comic Dog related projects.
Thank you Winchester for reminding me I should review this one