Martin Lawrence‘s career has been quietly tumultous; a modern tragedy played against an urban backdrop, surrounded by a buzz of indifference. Lawrence made his first break as a stand up comic on Star Search in the early 90s, in a time before every black man with an unoriginal take on “White Dudes Do This, Black Dudes Do That” were given HBO specials and half-baked sitcoms. Lawrence spent some time in small movies and television shows before he started hosting Def Comedy Jam on Black Entertainment Television. This too was in a faraway time before the network fell into the subversive habit of airing a succession of music videos featuring any coon shameless enough to exploit black stereotypes for monetary gain. From DCJ, Lawrence starred in own show, Martin, which, along with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, became one of Black America’s most beloved sitcoms. It was while riding high (literally) on Martin when the first threads of his career became unraveled.
In early 1994, his Saturday Night Live opening monologue was permanently deleted from television history after he delivered a rambling commentary on the olfactory nuisance of the vagina. In Lawrence’s defense, the monologue, while unfocused, incoherent and, at times, perplexing, was not as bad as legend has made out. Nevertheless, he followed this incident with repeated bouts of public insanity, causing, at its crescendo, several arrests, most famously when he directed traffic on Ventura Boulevard with a handgun. He also reportedly sexually harassed Martin co-star Tisha Campbell so severely she refused to work with him, spelling the end of the highly successful show. Where his career should have died peacefully, joining other mentally unstable one-hit wonders such as Fred Berry (who starred as Rerun on What’s Happening, the show that gave Lawrence his television debut), he soared. Inexplicably, Lawrence began churning out movies at rapid pace, each new offering worse than the last. Despite his poor critical reputation, Lawrence’s Hollywood stock continued to rise and, in a bizarre yet strangely satisfying turn, became one of Hollywood’s leading men.
I was defending Martin the other day to a co-worker who insists Lawrence is a horrible actor that has produced nothing but the lowest of cinematic trash. I argued that Lawrence was one of the most casually funny men in Hollywood. Ever. I put him above Will Smith who, I believe, is more of an affable man; charming and charismatic, but not quite funny. The co-worker suggested I look up Lawrence’s filmography, which I did. I was shocked to discover that perhaps my co-worker was right. Take the movies he’s done since he groped his way out of television and into late night talk show cannon: Nothing to Lose, Life, Blue Streak, Big Momma’s House, What’s the Worst that Could Happen?, Black Knight, National Security, Bad Boys II, Rebound, Big Momma’s House 2, Open Season, Wild Hogs, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and College Road Trip. Not a single “movie” has received a “Fresh” rating on the aggregate review meter Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, none, except Life, come close. Looking at the list, even I am forced to admit a staggering number were among the worst I’d seen that year: Big Momma’s House (2003), Bad Boys II (2003), Rebound (2005), Big Momma’s House 2 (2006) and Wild Hogs (2007).
Yet, there is an undeniable allure to Lawrence I can’t quite explain. It is possible – if not 100% certain – I tend to go easier on black actors, especially black comedians. I like Lawrence. He may, in fact, be my favorite comedian, for reasons I will never be able to explain. Though his movies are atrocious; the plots are embarrassing, the dialogue corny, the action clichéd, there is something attractive about the steaming mounds of shit Lawrence produces. This was the thought I had in my mind when I sat down to watch the universally panned Black Knight.
Is Martin a subtly skilled actor; a master of broad comedy who is not given his due by film critics? Or is he as bad as advertised and I am forgiving of his one-dimensional, incoherent performances because he’s black?
Well, the verdict came in, and it says I’m a fucking racist because Black Knight was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The movie’s cover, which features Lawrence clothed in amour, an imitation Ricky Watters jersey, a backwards hat, a pair of Nikes and sunglasses, should have been enough to scare away even the most masochistic movie enthusiast, yet I stubbornly charged ahead.
Lawrence plays Jamal, a drone at a Medieval Amusement park who, through an unexplainable clusterfuck, is transported back in time. Surprisingly, the townsfolk don’t immediately reach for their pitchforks and give chase to Lawrence, sights set on stringing him up from the sturdiest branch on the nearest tree. The implausibility continues as Martin is mistaken for a French emissary, saves the most bloated, out of shape “knight” from the sort of schoolyard taunting left behind in third grade, secures the love of a mulatto and becomes the Great Black Hope of a deposed Queen. Yes, you read this right. Martin’s love interest, a chambermaid in 14th century England, is played by a mixed woman. Such a product of race mixing, in the primitive time of the movie (and certain embarrassingly large pockets of the southern United States) would be the subject of slobbering wrath. Doubtless, the villagers would have tossed the chambermaid, played by the beautiful Marsha Thomason, into the most plague-infested moat seconds after her birth. But this is Hollywood. God forbid a black male successfully courts a white woman on screen. The unwashed mass of American moviegoers would surely riot at such a notion. Actually, as I type it I can envision a movie theatre in Northfolk, Virginia ablaze after a matinée showing of such a film. So, perhaps producers were wise to keep the niggers in their place. As a shameless, somewhat notorious lover of white women, this Hollywood practice annoys me to no end, especially when their cowardice undermines the entire plot of an already precariously flimsy film. The movie’s underlying theme of equality is undermined by its unwillingness to mix the races, and we are supposed to ignore it. Fuck you.
Tom Wilkinson, who has proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s top actors in The Full Monty, Michael Clayton, In the Bedroom and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is clearly slumming it here as Sir Nolte, a drunken, disgraced Knight who Lawrence saves by using the Rope-a-Dope (made famous by the great Muhammad Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman) on several Noblemen bullying Nolte. Undoubtedly, Black Knight is the worst film I’ve seen Wilkinson in and I hope the paycheck was worth it. There is an obligatory scene in the movie where Martin teaches the King’s Court a dance number, reportedly choreographed by Paula Abdul. Not only is Martin not beaten into a coma at the dance’s conclusion, he is celebrated for steps which would, in present day, have earned him a bottle across the skull and a brisk exit down the night club’s fire escape. Anyway, after much more tomfoolery -granting sad sack Nolte a pair of sneakers to keep him light on his feet, for example – Martin leads the deposed Queen and her followers in a raid on the castle. What follows is bar none the worst action sequence I’ve been witness to as an overweight Wilkinson and an astonishingly uncoordinated and disinterested Lawrence battle the evil King and his troops. The redemptive moment comes when Lawrence, seemingly on the precipice of defeat, is saved by a well placed arrow from the mistakenly dead Nolte. There is celebration and I assume Jamal is returned to his proper time. I say assume because I was forced to turn this movie off before the end credits. As an ardent devotee and collector of dreadful entertainment (Sunglasses at Night and Fuck the Pain Away are among my favorite songs), I scrambled to press the eject button before disappointment consumed me.
Black Knight (penned by a trio of writers not worth enough to be named and directed by Gil Junger, who also helmed 10 Things I Hate About You) was lazy and boring. It was fitting that Lawrence used the Rope-a-Dope to defeat his foes as each joke is telegraphed like Ali telegraphed Foreman’s punches in 1974. Jokes are tossed with slothful intent, and I rolled through each, watching as each one lost steam, became almost perfunctory. At only 95 minutes, the film was a lumbering and bloated mass that, in the late stages, like Ali did to Foreman, I put down for good. In Black Knight’s case, however, the end was not greeted with applause.