Since its June 2004 arrival at the box office, White Chicks has held a special place in pop culture. It would be undeniable to ignore the impact the polarizing flick made on cinematic history.
The controversial, albeit hilarious, movie is widely known for the pure ridiculousness of watching two Black men, Marlon and Shawn Wayans, disguise themselves as white women. As two FBI agents, Kevin (Shawn Wayans) and Marcus (Marlon Wayans), go undercover to discover who's behind the kidnapping of hotel heiresses Tiffany and Brittany Wilson. While disguised as the Wilson duo, Kevin and Marcus run into the Wilsons' real-life friends, foes and admirers, putting added pressure on their masquerade.
Despite being largely panned by critics, White Chicks was a box-office hit that resonated with the average moviegoer, opening at No. 2 and grossing $113 million worldwide.
Sometimes you can watch a film at an older age and realize how little you actually understood when you were younger. White Chicks is kind of special to me because it's one of the first definitive comedies of my teenage years with its slapstick humor. I thought it was wildly outlandish and a far departure from other teeny bopper movies, like Shrek, but still wholesome in a way.
Since then, social media has given rise to a more introspective way of viewing films that would make it hard for a film like White Chicks to be made today without a more nuanced take.
For example, when comedian Jeremy Saville dropped the trailer for his film Loqueesha, it immediately sent Twitter into an uproar. It's plot boils down to a white man who dons digital blackface — adopting African-American vernacular English and calling himself Loqueesha — to win a radio show contest specifically looking for minority women.
After receiving backlash, Saville tried to liken the movie to a reversed White Chicks, which Marlon Wayans promptly shot down. The situation led me to wonder did White Chicks have a deeper message that got lost in the sauce 15 years ago?
The concept of white privilege has been bubbling up in public social discourse for some time now. It moved into mainstream discussion circles most recently after a string of highly publicized incidents of white people calling the cops on Black people doing common, everyday things.
The great thing about movies is that they don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s debatable if a film like this could’ve been made in today’s social climate, but it’s important to look at what said climate was like when White Chicks came out in 2004.
In George W. Bush’s America, entertainment took on a new face as socialites co-opted the news cycle. Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Martha Stewart were taking over for the likes of Carrie Bradshaw as HBO’s Sex and the City bowed out after a six-year run.
Despite their social foibles, public stumbles and even jail sentences, each of these women were able to rise from the ashes of their transgressions to have careers and get back in the graces of the general public. Their white privilege buoyed them from their lows and gave them chance after chance others wouldn’t have seen. White Chicks ingested that. It led to me thinking, did White Chicks actually talk about white privilege before it was popular?
By dressing up as two white women (supposedly based on the Hilton sisters, Nicky and Paris), Marcus and Latrelle get to go into spaces Black people usually aren’t allowed into.
When you look past the package and pick up on the deeper pearls of wisdom (albeit questionably executed in some parts), the film flips blackface on its head by turning two Black men, arguably the most policed demographic, into two WASP blonde women, the most privileged group in the U.S. second to white men. At its core, the film punches up at our historical oppressors instead of punching down.
The Roots of Blackface
Before baseball, minstrels shows, which relied heavily on blackface as the main appeal, were America's favorite pastime largely created by and featuring white people. Caricatures and other stereotypical images of Black people were spread throughout the media portraying them in a negative light. Black culture and its vernacular was widely mocked and viewed negatively, which, of course, is still happening today.
Conversley, 'whiteface' has been used as a tool by African Americans to point out the disparities in life for the different races. In the 1980s Eddie Murphy went "undercover" as a white businessman on Saturday Night Live. Dave Chappelle donned whiteface on his popular sketch comedy show in 2003. As a character named Chuck Taylor, he parodied white news anchors with their "regionally non-distinct" accents. Most recently in 2014, Nick Cannon sent social media into a frenzy when he uploaded a photo of himself as his white alter ego as part of his promotion for his album White People Party Music.
While Chappelle mostly went unscathed, Cannon opened up a can of worms that had people split. Is whiteface really a thing, and is it as bad as blackface? Whiteface is real, but there is a stark distinction between it and blackface.
Whiteface, of which Cannon said, “there is NO such thing,” doesn’t have the historical baggage or connotations that blackface does. Nor has whiteface even been as relevant to America’s history as blackface. Whiteface is a direct response that spawned from malignant acts like blackface, yellowface and brownface.
The Wayans Brothers turned blackface on its head to point the lens back at white people, similar to how white people would use shoe polish to darken their skin and act out caricatures of Black people. This would be called punching up and not down, unlike blackface.
“No black comedian can perform in whiteface without implicitly referencing the genre’s roots: blackface comedy, which began when people still legally owned slaves,” James Hannaham wrote in a 2004 New York Magazine feature on the film.
When co-opted by others, African-American/Black culture is often turned into lazy stereotypes with little to no — or misappropriated — historical and cultural understanding.
So where does White Chicks fit into all of that?
It’s pretty black and white, actually. The film directly contrasts the Black American experience against the white American experience.
When Marcus and Latrelle meet the heiress' girl gang for the first time, the girls immediately try to pinpoint why the two sisters look so different before finally concluding they got plastic surgery, proclaiming that their lips "went from Cameron Diaz to J.Lo," among other noticeable changes.
Black and brown bodies have a long history of being policed and sexualized, both inside and outside of their respective ethnic communities. Look at the Caster Semenyas and Serena Williamses of the world who constantly have to prove their femininity against European beauty standards.
Features commonly seen on Black and brown bodies, namely Black women, are cool. Just not on an actual Black body. Let us not forget the summer fiasco known as “blackfishing,” where non-Black women were literally making themselves look darker than their actual skin tone.
Following that conversation, the gang reveals that one of their peers, Megan Vandergeld, was caught trying to “pull a Winona," referring to the 2001 arrest of Winona Ryder for shoplifting. Mama jokes follow next, but it’s a subtle reveal in itself. A wealthy, white heiress was able to go to Saks Fifth Avenue and attempt to steal a bag. She got a slap on her wrist in comparison to the much harsher sentence someone Black or brown would've gotten.
Shopping while Black or brown, especially in white areas, has always had a racist history. Oprah (who is worth $2.6 BILLION) was denied from purchasing a designer handbag she wanted from a luxury store because the employee reportedly declared the purse was “too expensive” for Oprah.
It's 2019 and R&B songbird SZA was still profiled while trying to cop some Fenty makeup from Sephora. Racial bias at stores is still widespread where minority shoppers, often Black, are watched, followed around the store, outright denied from making purchases or falsely accused of stealing.
Black Problems Are Fair Game Too
The film doesn’t hesitate to put Black issues under the spotlight as well. In one of the film’s most popular and memorable moments, the girls are singing Vanessa Carlton’s mega hit “A Thousand Miles” when Marcus-Tiffany and Kevin-Brittany ruin the moment by failing to sing along.
The station gets switched to "Realest Niggas” by 50 Cent and The Notorious B.I.G. With little coaxing, the disguised cops get the girls to sing along to their version of “real music.”
The scene is problematic for two main reasons. It perpetuates a misunderstanding that it’s OK to say the N-word as long as it comes from media, which has ballooned into a much bigger nest of problems with rap’s growing global prominence. It also plays into the age-old assumption of what is and isn’t Black music, which keeps Black expression into certain, codified boxes that in turn leads to stereotyping.
Think of the rap scene from Boots Riley’s zany cult hit Sorry to Bother You. Cassius Green’s “white voice” has propelled him through the ranks, but he has one final test to prove himself and show that he is cool enough for the wypipo. He earns his cool points at a party where he raps the N-word over and over to an overzealous crowd of white people. They are at first shell-shocked before they enthusiastically join in and the song becomes something bigger than Cassius.
The white partygoers can now put on this perceived Blackness for the night and bask in its perceived coolness. Likewise for the girls in White Chicks. They get to momentarily feel cool without the baggage of being “real niggas.” It assumes many things about Blackness perpetuated by Black and non-Black people.
Then we have Terry Crews’ character, Latrell Spencer, an over-the-top beefcake chasing after white women, or in his words, his “snowbunny.” When the undercover brothers' jig is up, Latrell is more disappointed that Marcus wasn’t white than the fact he was a man pretending to be a woman the whole time.
We’ve all been around that one Black person who acts like they can be the only Black individual in the room and goes out their way to show others they’re different from the rest of their skinfolk. They use their own Blackness and afforded proximity to whiteness to malign their own ethnic group to boost themselves up.
Although the Wayans Brothers admittedly didn’t package the film around the concept of white privilege, it is pervasive in the undercurrents of the film through the treatment of the non-disguised nonwhite characters.
Right out of the gate, the heiresses treated the two detectives like The Help when they first meet each other, even though it was explained that they are policemen. It’s like the times I will be out shopping and another shopper, often white, runs up and asks me where to find something even though I’m obviously shopping just like they are. I’ve also seen it happen to other individuals who don’t outwardly look white.
Delivery-wise, White Chicks is a bit messy, stringing together jokes like sketches, but there is still a relevant message that can be taken from it. White privilege is present and real. Despite the fact that the last two generations are more socially aware and apt to discussing the concept, White Chicks would’ve been torn apart now. Between the conflation between blackface and whiteface, social media’s call-out culture would’ve more than likely KO’d the film, ironically, no matter how irresistibly funny it is.
A sequel for White Chicks has been rumored since 2009, and Terry Crews further fanned the flames when he told Men’s Health he believes a second film is in the works.
White Chicks 2 doesn’t have to be award-winning material, but it would do well to a bring a more updated take, like Black BlacKkKlansman. From the recent wave of Blue Lives Matter to the FBI’s recent announcement that domestic terrorism propagated by white individuals is on the rise, there’s a lot of timely social, cultural and political issues to work with and give meat to the film beyond shallow jokes and dirty humor.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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