Olive Films has carved out an odd niche for itself releasing special-features-free DVDs and Blu-Rays of movies that seem mildly interesting despite reputations for being anywhere from inconceivably awful to merely not very good. True, the label has put out important movies like Robert Townsend’s seminal no-budget show-business satire Hollywood Shuffle and Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears. But they’re more likely to release schlock like Soul Man or the fascinatingly terrible mismatched buddy cop comedy Partners, which I previously wrote about for this site.
“Olive Films: The Mediocrities You’re Vaguely Curious About People” would be an accurate, if not particularly flattering, slogan for the company. That certainly describes 1993’s Amos & Andrew, which the label just released on February 16th.
If you’re wondering why a racially charged comedy from the screenwriter of Something Wild (and later Foxcatcher) starring preeminent pop culture icons Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson and a crackerjack supporting cast that includes such dependably great performers as Dabney Coleman, Brad Dourif, Bob Balaban, and Michael Lerner is, at best, half-remembered these days, its Blu-Ray cover provides a compelling explanation.
The cover is so hideously ugly that it does a better job of scaring audiences away than roping them in. It depicts almost surreally unconvincing photo-shopped versions of Cage and Jackson handcuffed together yet running in opposite directions in a manner that suggests they’re mere minutes away from yanking each other’s arms off and collapsing into a bloody, viscera-strewn mess. Behind them Dabney Coleman can be seen driving a police car directly towards them, a crazed gleam in his eyes. It’s a sadly indelible image that speaks to what a weird, difficult sell the film is.
But for two surprisingly solid acts at least, Amos & Andrew is a sometimes scathing, sometimes funny exploration of the intersection of class and race and the way racism works in our society that feels like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines.
Samuel L. Jackson stars as Andrew Sterling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual in the vein of Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has purchased a house on an island full of wealthy liberals. On his first night in his new abode, Sterling is spotted fiddling with his stereo equipment by Phil Gilmann (Lerner), a William Kunstler-type radical lawyer who sees a black man with a stereo in an expensive home and immediately assumes that Andrew is a burglar.
This echoes the notorious real-life incident in summer of 2009 when Gates returned to his Cambridge home and, while trying to get into his own house, was similarly mistaken for a burglar by a nosy interloper and ended up getting arrested by the police for disorderly conduct.
This lends a timeliness and cultural resonance to the film that it did not have at the time of its release. The clear implication, in both Amos & Andrew’s fictional realm and the real world, is that even a black man who has risen to impressive heights of fame and prestige will still be looked upon as a potential criminal under the wrong circumstances, even by communities that pride themselves on being progressive.
Phil is exactly the kind of pot-smoking, sexually adventurous, socially minded activist who would proudly hang pictures of himself at Civil Rights rallies in his law office, but when confronted with a genuine African-American man in an ambiguous situation, immediately gives into racism. He’s deeply committed to social justice in the abstract, but he’s also sees a black man in a wealthy context and automatically assumes he’s a criminal.
Lerner makes Phil a shameless opportunist masquerading as an idealist. There’s a gloriously understated moment later in the movie when the lawyer listens to Andrew complain about being the victim of a murderous white conspiracy and, with visions of dollar signs dancing in his head, assures Andrew that if that’s true he can sue the town and make a small fortune. Never mind that Phil himself is primarily responsible for the superstar intellectual’s predicament: he may be the cause of this proud black man’s problems, but that’s no reason he can’t profit financially off of them as well.
After Phil calls the police, they come to the house to investigate. They surround the house, guns cocked and ready for action. When the alarm goes off in Sterling’s expensive car, he goes outside and shuts it off with his keychain, which the police mistake for a gun (which echoes Trayvon Martin and his sinister bag of Skittles, which similarly was mistaken for a weapon). A hail of gunfire ensues, and the freaked out Andrew assumes he’s under attacked.
Once ambitious, politically-minded Police Chief Cecil Toliver (a comfortably typecast Dabney Coleman) figures out what has happened, he decides to try to save face by sending Amos, a low-level career criminal played by Nicolas Cage, into the house to take Andrew hostage and transform the non-crime of a wealthy black man hooking up his stereo into a crime they can dramatically solve.
That’s a complicated, confusing set-up that doesn’t necessarily get any simpler when the Police Chief enters the house where Amos is pretending to hold Andrew hostage with a gun, and, in a jarringly off moment, calls the wealthy, powerful black man ostensibly being held hostage the N-word. This enrages the famous playwright, who knocks him unconscious with a frying pan, at which point Amos and Andrew quietly escape the house and head over to a nearby home owned by Phil and his wife.
There really is only one real reason for the Police Chief, who up until this point has been established as a coolly pragmatic, calculating politician more than a cop to drop the N-word: to give Amos and Andrew a shared enemy and to pave the way towards these mismatched strangers becoming friends.
The movie never really recovers from this bracingly unconvincing moment, and the film’s deflating third act largely eschews satire and social commentary for the much cheaper, more audience-friendly terrain of the plot-driven mismatched buddy comedy. That’s a shame, because in its early going, Amos And Andrew is unusually incisive in its depiction of the intersection of class and race, especially for a studio comedy.
The film understands that the ascendance of a successful black man into a historically white realm, whether it’s Andrew making a home on an overwhelmingly white, upper-class island, or President Obama becoming the first non-white man elected President, exposes barely concealed, vicious racism even as it serves as a sign of social progress.
In Amos & Andrew, racism is an institutional evil that pervades law enforcement and the island’s liberal establishment, as well as a deeply personal form of ignorance perpetrated by people who don’t know what they’re doing.
The Andrew Sterling fracas quickly becomes a media circus and attracts the attention of both a rapacious press and Reverend Fenton Brunch (Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad), a media-hungry preacher in the Al Sharpton mold who seems able to intuitively sense when a black man is being treated unjustly in a way he can exploit for his own benefit.
In a fit of grandiosity, Andrew assumes that he’s the target of a white conspiracy, which is both true and false. He is the victim of racist white people, but that racism takes the form of a bunch of idiots trying to cover up their tracks rather than a sleekly organized cabal trying to bring him down.
Amos & Andrew is both funny and pointed in its early going, but in its third act, it fatally loses its nerve and its way. It becomes a safe and sloppy buddy comedy full of pat messages that let both the characters and the audience off the hook.
After establishing the insidiousness and ubiquity of racism, it ends by suggesting that Andrew really just needed to lighten up and take himself less seriously. At its best, Amos & Andrew suggests a version of Bonfire Of The Vanities that’s less ambitious but more successful precisely because it’s so modest. And the media circus that follows the epic mix-up at times suggests the pitch-black cynicism of Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole.
But after introducing a lot of vibrant, compelling, and bold elements, the filmmakers essentially shunt them to the side to focus on the dreary process of Amos and Andrew learning and growing and becoming friends and the mean, racist old Police Chief getting his just rewards.
Amos & Andrew is better than its reputation would suggest. It speaks to many of our current cultural obsessions, from the Black Lives Matters movement to concerns over widespread police brutality and the extent and nature of racism and the tricky way that race and class intertwine.
Yet the film fatally lacks the courage of its convictions. It begins as a racial and social satire but devolves into a harmless mainstream comedy that aspires to do little more than glean some chuckles out of the tangled mess that is our country’s often tragic, sometimes comic racial history.
In that respect, that awful Blu-Ray cover proves sadly symbolic. Like Amos and Andrew in that insult to the not-so-noble art of Photo-shopping, it’s violently pulled in two very different directions – towards scathing satire and silly Touchstone-style slapstick goofing respectively – and ends up lurching unsteadily into the safe, familiar space of harmless mediocrity.