According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Hollywood released approximately 143 movies in 1997. Of those, just 17 starred a Black performer in top billing. Most of those roles, as with Men In Black, Double Team, Money Talks, Most Wanted, and Switchback were given to Black men opposite white male co-leads. Others, like Amistad, focused on a historic slavery narrative. There were the rare ensemble films, like Love Jones and Soulfood (both starring Nia Long). And then, there was B*A*P*S, a comedy starring two Black actresses (Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle Reid), written by a Black woman (Troy Beyer), and helmed by a Black director (Richard Townsend).
B*A*P*S (which stands for Black American Princesses) is an example of a movie that, while controversial, still holds significant cultural relevance, and should be more respected than it is. The reviews of the film when it hit theaters in March 1997 were mostly terrible, if not openly antagonistic. Roger Ebert gave it a rare “no stars” rating, and called the film “jaw-droppingly bad,” referring to its leads as “vulgar and garish homegirls.” John Petrakis, writing for the Chicago Tribune, took issue with the movie’s “grotesque” use of “the normally ravishing Halle Berry,” describing her character’s look as “platinum hair, a gold tooth, and a wardrobe that would make Dennis Rodman cover his eyes." Janet Maslin, then the lead film reviewer at the New York Times (and one of the few women to hold such a prestigious position) was somewhat kinder, praising Berry’s comedy chops, but under a headline that read “Trashy Chic Goes West and finds Rodeo Drive.”
A major concern of many reviewers seemed to be that by leaning into stereotypes about Black women, the film fostered racial self-hatred. Ebert noted that there’s a “thin line between satire and offensiveness, and this crosses it. Its portraits of these two working-class Black women have been painted with snobbery and scorn,” while Emanuel Levy at Variety wrote that the “characterization of the Black protagonists is so shallow and one-dimensional that if white filmmakers had made the movie they might have been charged with racial stereotyping.”
Let’s just name the elephant in the room: All these critics are white, reviewing a film with Black female leads in very negative terms. There’s nothing wrong with panning a film; critics are entitled to their opinion, which is entirely subjective. Nor do I think only women can review a film about women, or people of color a movie with Black leads. As L.A. Times film critic Justin Chang recently argued in response to Brie Larson’s comments regarding the reviews of A Wrinkle in Time, “‘Who is this movie for?’ is an inherently limiting question.”
A critic may find that the broad, physical humor so crucial to B*A*P*S isn’t for them. That said, they should be mindful of their own biases and limited perspectives. Were these reviews written today, I suspect the tone and language used would be different. It’s a startling illustration of how much the conversation about race, and people of color in film has evolved in the last 21 years.
B*A*P*S isn’t exactly a good movie — it’s overacted, campy, and the ending is gooey. But there’s a reason it has a 67% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to the abysmal 13% critics’ score. And while there’s only so much you can glean from the aggregator site in terms of true reactions, the comments from women — and specifically Black women — sound overwhelmingly fond. For many, this was one of those films you watched in middle-school, with friends, junk food, and popcorn. It’s a Black cult classic, and one often left out of an overwhelmingly white cannon.
It’s also important. The film has a goofy premise, for sure, and Pierre Edwards’ initial wig should be illegal, but it’s one of the few Hollywood examples of Black women getting a Cinderella fairy tale arc. It’s also a comedy that’s rooted in its time (which, if you couldn’t tell from the Dennis Rodman and LL Cool J cameos, is the late ‘90s), not a distant past or the Tyler Perry universe, the predominant settings for the stories Hollywood tells about people of color. It’s a story written by a Black woman, and told by a Black man, geared towards Black and woman audiences. And a young Halle Berry struggling to turn off a bidet while clad in an orange spandex jumpsuit is a feminist meme waiting to happen.
Berry plays Nisi, a waitress working in a Decatur, Georgia, diner alongside her best friend and roommate Mickey (Natalie Deselle-Reid). Stuck in a menial job and struggling to motivate their deadbeat boyfriends, Ali (Pierre Edwards) and James (Anthony Johnson), the two dream of one day opening their dream hair salon/soul food joint. One day, while serving coffee and burnt toast to one of her regulars, Nisi overhears a radio announcement calling for dancers to audition for a music video in Los Angeles. The prize-money? $10,000. Determined to win and use the money towards their own business, Nisi and Mickey kiss their fucbois goodbye and set off for Hollywood with hair so big that it blocks the airplane movie projector. With no dance experience whatsoever (Halle Berry popping in front of a crowd of svelt, toned, and snooty back-up dancers is part of the reason this movie holds cult status) the two aim to get by on sheer confidence alone. They...do not.
But it all works out, because just as Nisi and Mickey emerge from the audition fiasco, a sleazy man named Antonio (Luigi Amadeo) approaches them with another opportunity: he’ll set them up with room and board at a Beverly Hills mansion owned by dying millionaire Mr. Blakemore (Martin Landau) and $10,000 in cash. All Nisi has to do is pretend to be the granddaughter of Blakemore’s long lost love — his family’s Black maid, Lily. Once he dies, Nisi and Mickey can be on their way with enough seed money for their venture.
Obviously, the whole thing turns out to be a scam orchestrated by Blakemore’s nephew, Isaac (Jonathan Fried), who plans to have Antonio con Mickey into leaving her fingerprints on the old man’s safe and frame the girls for stealing, making off with the money himself. But when Blakemore actually takes to the two women, to the dismay of his butler, Manley (British stage actor Ian Richardson, who nails the stiff upper lip with the heart of a softie), things get more complicated — for Isaac, who just wants to get rich, but also for Nisi, who starts getting pangs of conscience.
The “fish out of water” setup wouldn’t work as well as it does had it just been one-sided. Nisi and Mickey’s introduction to “livin’ large and in charge” is the aforementioned bidet, which they confuse with an alternate toilet (rich people need choice, duh), and end up flooding the bathroom. It’s a funny scene, mostly because Berry and Desselle-Reid are so committed. But it would come off as derisive if it weren’t for the reverse situation that comes later, when the stiff and proper Manley (nicknamed “Alfred” by Mickey in a tribute to Batman) is sent out to buy an Ice Cube CD. The movie sets up the audience to root for Nisi and Mickey, to laugh with them, not at them.
It’s interesting that so many critics took issue with the derivative nature of the film — that’s precisely what makes B*A*P*S stand out. Does it have elements of Pretty Woman? Of course. “Lady in inappropriate outfit shocks Beverly Hills” is basically the entire point of that film, and B*A*P*S even has a similar Rodeo Drive shopping montage. But why is it charming when Julia Roberts does it, and “trashy” when it’s Halle Berry? That very question was at the heart of our Writing Critics’ Wrongs column about Pretty Woman. Vivian’s whiteness is an integral part of her narrative, as well as the broader rags-to-riches story she represents. In her case, the punchline isn’t that she makes it big, but rather that she was ever down to begin with.
B*A*P*S, on the other hand, is transgressive. It depicts women of color on the rise (the image of two Black female entrepreneurs is one that we’re still not seeing enough of today), and a white man who ultimately wants nothing more from them than company. It also slyly challenges white audiences to question their own assumptions about Nisi and Mickey, while giving Black viewers a complicit wink. Of course Isaac would assume that the police would be on his side in a “he said, she said” battle with Mickey. It takes the testimony of another white man, Manley, to convince them of her innocence.
Still, B*A*P*S’ most progressive aspects are in what it doesn’t show. The film never makes jokes at the expense of Mickey’s weight. No one questions the plausibility of Antonio being attracted to a plus-size woman, an image so often stereotyped or fetishized in pop culture. In the famous scene where she incredulously stares at the small portions of bland cuisine presented to her during the girls’ first night in the mansion, the soul food she cooks to replace it is deliberately crafted with Blakemore’s health concerns in mind. She’s exuberant, and provides most of the comic relief — but she’s also kind, and male director Townsend goes out of his way to showcase that. What’s more, despite the subtext that no one would question a white man’s reasons for bringing two Black women into his house, Blakemore never sexually objectifies them. And rather than change herself to fit into a suitor’s lifestyle, Nisi only agrees to take Ali back once he’s proved that he can compromise to suit her needs.
The movie’s flaws largely come down to bad directing. B*A*P*S screenwriter Beyer, who stars in the film as Blakemore’s lawyer, Tracy Shaw, has expressed her disappointment with how the film ultimately turned out. A former actress, she wrote the script for B*A*P*S in an effort to provide the kinds of parts she wasn’t getting as a Black woman in Hollywood. But as she told Indiewire back in 1998, when she saw the final cut, she was “devastated.”
It’s as if Townsend took a script about the real struggles women of color face when trying to navigate an unfamiliar space, and the friendships and relationships that ultimately carry them through, and ballooned the whole thing into the broadest kind of farce imaginable.
“He took the liberty of changing stuff as he shot the film,” Beyer told Indiewire. “At the end of the day, when I saw the film, I hated it. I was really embarrassed and it was too late for me to take my name off the picture. Then I got killed by the critics. Me! The writer! I just thought I’m gonna take the money from this awful experience and put it into my own film. I’m gonna direct it and make sure my words make it to the screen.”
And she did. Beyer took the money she made from B*A*P*S and used it to write and direct her first feature, Let’s Talk About Sex, which she also starred in. (It too was panned, by critics and audiences this time.)
Clearly, though, her original vision for B*A*P*S still shines through. The fact that the film has had such a lasting impact, becoming a staple sleepover VHS rental for much of the late ‘90s and early 2000s for many women of my generation, proves that the film spoke to its audience. Even Berry, who would go on to win an Oscar for Monster’s Ball only four years later in 2001, could relate. “When I left Cleveland, I was 18 years old,” she told Jet in 1997. “I had big dreams and no money. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to model. I wanted to act. I wanted to go to Hollywood. So, I know exactly where she [Nisi] was.”
The argument that critics “don’t get it” is one that has been used by Hollywood to justify bad reviews for years. It’s a tactic that was most egregiously deployed by John Travolta’s Gotti movie in June, when the film’s marketer’s reacted to the almost unprecedented 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes by launching a smear campaign against film criticism. “Audiences loved Gotti, but critics don’t want you to see it… The question is why??? Trust the people and see it for yourself!” You could say that this is one silly movie grasping for any kind of bottom line. But as Alissa Wilkinson pointed out over at Vox, it’s also a way to discredit opinions you don’t agree with, and one that is eerily similar to the methods used by the Trump administration.
Still, there is an important distinction to make in the case of B*A*P*S. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study that inspired this column showed that even as there is a major gender gap in film criticism, there is an even bigger racial one. “Underrepresented males” (a category that in this case includes non-white reviewers) made up 14.8% of the critics in the study, and “underrepresented females” only 8.9%. The idea that everyone, regardless of race or gender or identity should be able to review and see themselves in a film only works if it applies to everyone.
Beyer would go on to write and direct yet another cult classic starring Black leads: Love Don’t Cost A Thing, starring Nick Cannon and Christina Milian. That film, also beloved by many of my peers who came of age in the early 2000s, also has a 13% Rotten Tomatoes score, compared to a 65% audience rating.
B*A*P*S did not exist in a vacuum. The film was the product of a late 90s boom in Black representation on screen, one that we’re only very recently starting to see again. Jordan Peele’s Get Out has altered the playbook in how we think about racism and white privilege. With Moonlight, whose memorable Best Picture win went down in Oscars history, Barry Jenkins created an intersectional masterpiece examining all facets of identity. On TV, Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Issa Rae’s Insecure have pushed the conversation about Black friendship and upward mobility forward. Lena Waithe is changing the face of comedy.
With all that, do we still need B*A*P*S? One doesn’t negate the other. FX’s recent show Pose has been celebrated for its groundbreaking depiction of LGBTQ+ life in 1980s New York, and its historic trans cast. It has sparked a much-needed conversation about representation of trans and gender nonconforming people on television and film. But does that progress also mean future midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are cancelled? Why deprive yourself of a blonde Halle Berry in a denim crop top/skirt combo? B*A*P*S may be as dated as the outfit, but sometimes it’s nice to look back and remember, knowing we can do better now.
B*A*P*S is available for purchase and rental on iTunes.