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‘Strictly Business’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1991

Kevin Hooks's "Strictly Business" is a garbled morality play in comedy clothing. Its hero is a "buppie" -- a black yuppie -- named Waymon Tinsdale III (Joseph C. Phillips) who's on the rise at New York's highest-rolling real estate firm. Waymon is successful, but at the beginning he's the movie's goat. Why? Because in his pursuit of advancement in the white man's world he's lost touch with his blackness. Every morning, he knots his power tie, laces up his wingtips and slips into a Brooks Bros. suit. He walks white, talks white, thinks white. He plays squash, for God's sake, and has never even been to Harlem.

By the movie's standards, there's nothing worse than this. And it's not just a question of a black man acting white; it's being white period that's bad. "Strictly Business" is a find-yourself movie. It's not enough for Waymon to succeed; not if he loses his black self in the process. He's got to be true to his roots -- which translates, basically, as being "in there" with the brothers -- if his success is to mean anything. If he isn't, he's a buffoon, like all the other white guys.

Waymon has a lot to learn about being black. Luckily, he has an ambitious young "home" from the mail room named Bobby (Tommy Davidson) to tutor him. The catalyst for this transformation is a curvaceous vixen named Natalie (Halle Berry ) who makes Waymon's head do the Linda Blair 360-degree thing. She's a vision, and in exchange for an introduction, Waymon promises to get Bobby into the company's training program.

Hooks and the film's ham-handed screenwriters, Pam Gibson and Nelson George, don't seem to think there's anything wrong with Waymon peddling career advancement for a date. It's moral water off a duck's back. They also accept Waymon's metamorphosis from square dude to down brother at face value. Cool is at a high premium, and with Bobby as mentor, dressing him, taking him to Harlem and teaching him the lingo, pretty soon he's "in there" with Natalie.

Most of this is only tepidly funny, though Davidson is winning and has some genuinely hilarious riffs. Unfortunately, Phillips is little more than an all-purpose hunk; even after he loosens up he seems stiff. Plus, the movie sets a couple of cartoon villains -- Waymon's status-mad girlfriend, Diedre (Anne-Marie Johnson), and his business colleague David (David Marshall Grant) -- as its targets. Both are atrocious caricatures, and both reflect how effortlessly women and whites can be cast as negative forces by the current generation of black filmmakers. While denouncing prejudice, Hooks bottles his own brand of reverse racism and sexism. Comedy curdles in this atmosphere. Watching "Strictly Business" you long for a day when whites aren't the enemy and women are more than baubles.

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