Some time last year, not too long after we launched, we came up with the idea of Great Moments In Colored Cinema. It was basically a vehicle to mine the Internet and search for those iconic scenes and performances, like Eddie Murphy’s sublime turn as Sexual Chocolate frontman Randy Watson in Coming To America to Chris Gardner’s (Will Smith) job interview in The Pursuit of Happyness . But, quite honestly, the scene that gave me the initial idea for this running feature was an improvisational standoff between Kevin Hart and Romany Malco in Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Up until now, TSL’s Omar Mazariego has stewarded the Colored Cinema feature, but I’ve been compelled to jump in the fray. Recently, at a Chipotle near Union Square, I was behind a young black woman in line (we’ll call her Maya). At the register, she ordered a margarita to go with her burrito. The cashier was a young Latino guy (we’ll call him George). Maya implored him to “make it strong,” like George was a real bartender and wasn’t working at a micromanaged fast food establishment. Maya got her margarita, sipped it, and exasperated, motioned to another Chipotle employee – a fellow black female we’ll call Jenny – to come hither.
“Can you give me another shot please? This isn’t strong enough.”
Jenny looked at Maya with an almost pained expression of guilt.
“Really?” Maya said in smug disgust.
“Yes, sorry, really,” said Jenny, now seemingly irritated herself.
Maya took this as an affront and stormed out the store whipping her weave back and forth. “This isn’t a taqueria; it’s Chipotle,” Jenny said under her breath. This quick exchange reminded me of the Hart/Malco exchange.
Kevin hart is a huge star now, but before The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I knew him mostly as a somewhat shrill stand-up comic that was the lead actor inSoul Plane, one of the most unfunny 90-minutes ever recorded on film. Malco, of course, infamously played the title character in Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story. His role in the reenactment of the “Pumps in a Bump” video shoot remains a high-water mark for method acting. So it was a bit of a revelation to see these two square off and deliver a scene that was not only absurdly hilarious, but also a very adroit, keen dramatization of coded black language, black ethos and W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of duality. Yep, all that from a 90-second scene in a Hollywood comedy.
The whole scene hits iconic status toward the end when Hart delivers this classic line: “Well, you somebody’s n***a, wearin’ this n***a tie.”
Peep how it goes down…
Malco’s character, Jay, works at Smart Tech, a fictional, Best Buy-type electronics store. He doesn’t take his job seriously, at all, currently on his second of three strikes (Jay is the type of cat, we’d later find out, that would come home to his girlfriend with a condom still on). One day, Hart’s character comes in the store as a customer. Hart’s character hits Jay with that stinging, “n***a tie” character assessment and patronizingly flips Jay’s tie when saying it, too. It stands as one of the most gangsta putdowns I’ve come across – and I could write a book about how to put somebody down.
In this exchange, Hart is actually initiating n***a-behavior by trying to guilt Jay into compromising his job by offering him (Hart) a discount on his electronics purchase (just like Maya did with Jenny at Chipotle). Hart tries to subtly G his way into the discount, saying, “And I’m gonna need that three-year warranty for the price of...‘on the house.’” Blacks like to do that to other blacks, sometimes – unscrupulously use our common heritage/culture and skin color to get some extras, even if it’s at the expense of professionalism and, ultimately, morality. Cats always think they’re being slick when they use the “We black” rhetoric.
After Hart says he wants the warranty “for the price of ‘on the house’” (a hilarious line), Jay responds, “I can’t do that.” You can tell by how his head drops, voice lowers, eyes sink and posture slumps that he feels somewhat saddened by the reality that 1.) He has no power to hook this brotha up, and 2.) This black man (Hart) would try to use this avenue to get over on him.
Hart is not impressed with Jay’s principles, and he’s a bit miffed that this fellow black man is upholding the rules of the establishment. So Hart says (here comes another gem), “Oh come on, now…don’t be a negro; be my n***a.”
This sets Jay off. “Oh see, now, I ain’t nobody’s n***a.” Buppie-indignation came screaming out of him.
Hart put the dude in his place, though, because Hart saw right through the buppie-indignation. Which is why he told Jay, “Well, you somebody’s n***a. Wearin’ this n***a tie.”
It was like, “Negro, please. You aint nobody’s n***a? You? Up in this electronics store rockin’ a uniform…and YOU ain’t nobody’s n***a? Quit the charade.”
At that point, Jay had had enough. Before you know it, the two were on the verge of slap-boxing. And, of course, Hart’s character started hurling threats about coming back to the store and wetting everybody up.
Apatow films are known for their improvised dialogue. Many scenes start with skeletons that the actors and Apatow flesh out over time and takes. This was easily apparent in the Hart/Malco scene, as decades and generations of black-male shorthand and psychology were on classic display. And it’s almost impossible that Apatow himself is/was aware of such subtle quirks in the psyche and interactions of black men.
Seriously, this scene needs to find its way into sociology curriculum.