Writing About Film

Regarding Henry, 1991Regarding Boyz N the Hood

Regarding Henry (Mike Nichols, 1991)

Unpublished, 1991
note: in a sad attempt at irony on my part, this review of Regarding Henry pretends to be about John Singleton's contemporaneous film, Boys N the Hood...


I'd been teased by trailers for John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood for months, and I was so excited about seeing it that I took a wrong turn inside the Cineplex Odeon and didn’t find my seat until right after the credits had rolled. It was worth the hassle. The film demonstrates the serious potential of at least one of today’s influx of hot black filmmakers. Written and directed by the 23-year-old Singleton, who hails from South Central LA, Boyz is one of the cleverest, most courageous critiques of the white American hegemony since Leave it to Beaver. I expected a shocking, ultra-serious exploration of the ghettos of black LA; instead I found a biting satire which poignantly highlights the discrepancy between urban America’s white and black, rich and poor.

The film’s action revolves around the violent shooting of corporate lawyer Henry Turner, played by Harrison Ford, and his long, painful recovery. In the process, Henry starts his life from scratch, renouncing his fast-track sleazy lifestyle and rediscovering the love of his wife and child.

The movie effortlessly spoofs every Reagan-Bush-Spielberg value we have learned in the last ten years, all the while masquerading as a heartfelt fable in the tradition of It’s A Wonderful Life. The film’s brilliance rests in its uncanny appropriation of white-bread cinematic conventions, from Henry’s innocent, freckle-faced daughter; to the slobbering family puppy; to the film’s limp denouement, as the “reincarnated” Henry quits his law firm and salvages the life of a destitute cripple he had cheated in the last case he worked on before his shooting.

Singleton’s most inspired choice is the character of Radio Raheem, also known as Bradley. Resurrecting the boombox-toting hoodlum of Do the Right Thing, again played by Bill Nunn, Singleton makes a shrewd comment on cinematic images of black men. Bradley is a 1990s black mammy, a physical therapist who coaxes Henry back to the world he was taken from by his shooting. As envisioned by Singleton and Nunn, Bradley retains not one sliver of genuine black personality or culture, embracing every conceivable African American stereotype: he’s burly, boisterous and semi-articulate; lusts after white women; is constantly jiving to loud music on his Walkman; and is a former athlete. Finally — and here I think Singleton’s parody almost goes too far — Bradley utilizes an outmoded "soul" handshake that hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s.

True to the medium he sends up, Singleton’s direction is polished and completely without personality; how, as a first-time director, he convinced Paramount to give him the production budget to carry off this film is a mystery. He manages to give the movie a slickness and falsity that only Hollywood at its sappiest and most corrupt has heretofore achieved, recalling such modern classics as Ghost, Steel Magnolias, and Home Alone. What is most surprising is that Paramount gambled its resources on the movie at all, especially considering the potential damage this film could inflict on the studio’s other, more traditional, projects. In its adept mimicry of Hollywood sentimentality, the film pushes repressed Protestant morés in the audience’s face, illustrating how and why whites, as this county’s dominant, most fortuitous race, find it impossible to understand or exist harmoniously with those unlike them.

Singleton is most brilliant when he shows the white world colliding with that of the non-white. Henry is assaulted almost as soon he ventures into the foreign, underground world of the New York City streets, which are all too close to the cloistered Fifth Avenue apartment he inhabits. Angry and careless because his Latina maid forgot to buy his cigarettes, Henry enters a bodega run by a meek and inscrutable Arab, and is oblivious to the reality of the gun being pointed at him by a lurking Latino robber. Singleton shrewdly alludes to the convention so popular among our military elites when the robber blithely shoots Henry in the chest and head: non-whites just don’t understand the value of human life. This completely unprovoked act of violence lands Henry in the hospital emergency room, where he and his family are forced to momentarily suffer along with the masses of color. What an inconvenience, and thank God Henry improves (or his medical benefits kick in) quickly enough to get him his own room in the hospital.

Annette Bening brilliantly executes the role of Sarah, Henry’s prissy, WASP wife (the other characters, including Ford himself, are translated in the most banal fashion, rendering them one-sided and completely unengaging). Sarah is a stuck-up shallow socialite who has no capacity for compassion — or passion of any kind. You can see her mind whirling as she considers the ramifications of her endangered lifestyle, but she evidences no real feeling for her husband. One scene, in which daughter Rachel asks her mom whether they’ll now be poor, has Sarah feebly denying that possibility while vowing vengeance on the source of her daughter’s worries (another girl’s mother), who has threatened her materialistic honor. Subsequent scenes display Sarah’s pride and staunch patrician faith, which prevent her from enjoying honest relationships with her friends or accepting monetary help from Henry’s old boss. Another more typical film, one which took itself seriously, would balance Henry’s physical reawakening with a corresponding moral inspiration on the part of Sarah. Instead, the values she represents are continuously reaffirmed. As Henry recovers, the sanctity of the nuclear family is restored, they are still able to attend cocktail parties, and they get to keep their expensive artwork, clothes and furniture. The film succeeds best in its sendup of these Ken and Barbie figures as role models; Sarah and Henry’s interaction — just to pick any two characters — is so emotionally crippled that it single-handedly puts the lie to the traditional Hollywood-represented relationship and its real-life practitioners.

The climactic rescue of Rachel from the antiseptic surroundings of her boarding school and the happy trio’s escape to the suburbs is an hilarious spoof of contemporary America’s “I’m OK, You’re OK” mentality. Sarah retains her real-estate position and Rachel goes to a local private school, leaving her friends to stifle in the puritan nunnery she left behind. As for Henry? Well, we can be sure that he sets to work on a supermarket best-seller about his new lease on life. They even say goodbye to their long-time maid, who, in her heavily-accented English, assures “Meester Henry” that she likes him better now. With Raheem-Bradley, Rosella the maid, and the gentle old black waiter at a soirée looking up approvingly, Singleton scoffs that all it takes to for white people to improve the world is to treat a servant as they would a treasured puppy.

The movie’s one overriding fault is that Singleton does his job too well: I wonder if audiences in America’s heartland will get the joke. On the other hand, the film is so artificial and cloying that non-white audiences will undoubtedly find it unwatchable. Come to think of it, if I didn’t know better, I almost could believe this was one of those horrible feel-good movies in the mold of, say, Mike Nichols’ Working Girl. Whether played straight or not, however, the film turns out to be a loser; but if it’s bound to disappear quickly from the marquees, it may as well leave with its head held high. Why does it take brilliant pastiche such as Boyz N The Hood to enable us to see through the insipid conventions so commonly accepted as honest emotion in American film?

I wish Singleton all the best in his future endeavors.

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