Thursday, November 03, 2005
Cuba Gooding, Jr. is married to a white woman. To many black people for whom Jim Crow is more than funny name, this is a moral lapse on par with a cocaine habit. As fodder for black comedians, Gooding resides in the same section of the file cabinet as Tiger Woods, Wayne Brady and Taye Diggs. The third-rate movies he has made since a promising breakthrough in Boyz in the Hood, meanwhile, are good for bargain-basement laughs.
But is he any good?
This question doesn't seem to trouble even fellow black thespians like David Alan Grier, who once dissed Gooding's dubious achievements on a Jimmy Kimmel appearance. But in a media culture that praises an affectless poseur like Johnny Depp while dismissing a go-for-broke artist like Vincent Gallo, the question of Gooding’s actual talent is a complicated matter.
The short answer: He’s a comic genius with the innocence, pluck and vulnerability of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. In films like Snow Dogs, Rat Race and Boat Trip, Gooding is a silent film star (and, given each film’s abysmal dialogue, all the better.) With a rubber face that seems a cartoonist’s rendition of a handsome porter, Gooding doesn’t push an image of leading man suaveness or heroic bravado. So far, he has mostly gone for boyish slapstick, pathos and fear. Gooding’s characters suffer for their soft-hearted decency. Troy’s famous nervous breakdown in Boyz is the dramatic template for his comic characters—good guys pushed way too far. If he, not Ving Rhames, had offered Jack Lemmon his Golden Globe award, not one eyebrow would have risen. Lemmon could stretch exasperation across an entire movie without exhausting our patience. Gooding has the same comic gift. But where Lemmon’s thing was rumpled middle-aged sheepishness, Gooding’s genius is Boy Scout civility abused to the breaking point.
Only one factor paradoxically Americanizes and radicalizes Gooding at the same time: His skin color. Imagine Buster Keaton staging his underdog triumphs in the skin of a black man. If such films had been possible, they might have affected the American landscape and future as mightily as hurricane Katrina. “Birth of a Nation” reinvigorated the Klan; a black comic of Gooding’s fragile humanity could have dismantled it. Gooding may retch, squeal, mug and bulge his eyes, but he does not play buffoons. His characters are squares—what kids now call cornballs or birdheads. They wouldn’t even make the first cut of Damon Dash’s The Ultimate Hustler. In “The Fighting Temptations” Gooding plays a cornball who thinks he’s a hustler and is widely taken to be a corporate sellout. But over the course of a rote fish-out-of-water plot in which he ends up the leader of a Down South gospel choir, it becomes clear that he is simply afraid of losing out on the American Dream. He has lied about his education to get a rung on the corporate ladder. And at the height of his humbling reeducation as backwoods choirmaster, he abandons the group to help a company market malt liquor to the urban demographic (in an obvious but giddy little bit of satire).
We’ve seen this kind of hustler-goes-straight comedy a trillion times. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and all their lesser spawn have helped racialize this kind of tale. But until Gooding, we hadn’t seen the implosive effect hustling one’s own race can have on the psyche. Watch Gooding in the boardroom attempting to convince himself as much as his fellow executives that the malt liquor plot is a good idea. Shakespearean.