Strictly Business

strictly-business.jpgSixteen years ago I went to the theater with my friend Freeman to go see the Wes Craven film The People Under the Stairs. Unbeknownst to either of us, The People Under the Stairs was no longer playing, and the only viewing option open to us was a film neither of us was likely to have watched under any other circumstances—Strictly Business. But, we were in the mood to watch a movie—and everyone knows what that feeling is like—so we decided to take a chance and watch a romantic comedy, when what we really wanted to see was a horror film that was a thinly disguised metaphor of the Reagan era.

Originally released in 1991, Strictly Business came along during the height of what was then considered to be a new renaissance of black films. Spike Lee pretty much launched this new wave of films with his 1986 movie, She’s Gotta Have It. Over the next five years there would be steady trickle of films that included several more films from Lee (among them his 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing), as well as Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Keenan Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Wendell Harris’ brilliant (and forgotten) Chameleon Street (1989), and the Hudlin Brothers’ House Party (1990). But it was 1991 that saw a massive flood of black films, including New Jack City, John Singleton’s Boyz n the ‘Hood, Straight Out of Brooklyn, and Lee’s Jungle Fever. Among the Class of 1991 was Strictly Business, an okay-but-not-great romantic comedy that could have just as easily lapsed into obscurity if it weren’t for appearances by several actors who would go on to great prominence over the coming years.

Joseph C. Williams stars as Wayman Tinsdale III, a hotshot real estate broker on the fast-track to becoming a partner at the powerful firm where he works. Bobby Johnson (Tommy Davidson) is a lowly mailroom clerk at the same firm, who considers Wayman to be a good friend, even though the executive has yet to hook a brotha up with a position in the broker training program. While having lunch with one of his bosses, Wayman spots Natalie (Halle Berry), and as any heterosexual man would do, pops a massive boner over the fine young lass. The problem is that Wayman is the most uptight black man to ever walk the planet. And that’s the running joke of the film—Wayman does not act or talk like a black man, which is to say he sounds articulate and carries himself with dignity, and that is considered to be funny.

When Wayman discovers that Johnny knows Natalie, he convinces the mailroom clerk to introduce them; and in exchange Wayman will take Johnny under his professional wing. This leads to more “comedy,” as Wayman shops for a new, more hip outfit, and then tries to talk black to some people at a nightclub. Oh yeah, before he can really make time with Natalie, Wayman has to get rid of his even more uptight girlfriend (Anne Marie Johnson). Eventually, Wayman and Natalie hook up with the sort of ease that is only found in predictable romantic comedies. All of this happens while he is about to close the biggest deal of his career. But a jealous, not to mention slightly racist co-worker has other plans, and throws a wrench into our hero’s machine. This leads to even more predictable nonsense that will only come as a surprise to people who have never watched movies (or television) before. Otherwise, you’ll know where all of this going long before it gets there.

As far as mediocre films go, Strictly Business isn’t all that bad. The script is a patchwork of recycled clichés and predictability, and Kevin Hooks’ direction does not betray any sort of penchant for comedic timing, and yet the film still manages to keep from failing miserably. Part of what makes the film work is the chemistry between Williams and Davidson, which comes through despite the script and the direction. Williams never really went on to be a movie star, nor did Davidson for that matter, but both manage to work a bit of magic with what they’ve been given. Halle Berry looks great, but her part is little more than an easy-on-the-eyes plot device to propel the story forward.

Berry’s character of Natalie, while providing a nice piece of eye-candy, ultimately represents where Strictly Business really goes wrong. The relationship between Natalie and Wayman is nothing more than a poorly developed subplot that distracts from the real story, which is the friendship between Wayman and Johnny. More than anything, their friendship is what the film is about, but somewhere along the way, someone decided that what Strictly Business needed was a tired, maudlin love story of no real substance or worth. And that’s not to say the film would have been better if it had gone the other way, but it would have likely been more memorable, and perhaps intellectually challenging.

More than anything else, Strictly Business is one of those cinematic time capsules that hasn’t aged all that well, but still has a few bits of charm. It is interesting to see Halle Berry on her rise to stardom, as well as small supporting roles by Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, Joe Torry, Isaiah, Kim Coles, Anne Marie Johnson and Denis Leary. At the same time, none of them give the most memorable performances. But when it comes right down to it, Strictly Business is the sort of film you watch when you stumble across it while channel surfing on cable, and not something you must absolutely have in your collection.

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