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‘True Identity’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1991

"True Identity" is a decidedly Disneyesque reflection on the trouble with skin-deep judgments. A "Saturday Night Live" sketch that grew, it stars Bravo cable comedian Lenny Henry in a whiteface role pioneered by the brasher Eddie Murphy. Alas, the conceit has lost its bite in transition.

Henry, a congenial Briton who specializes in character impersonations, is Miles Pope, a black actor who gets in trouble after discovering that a prominent businessman (Frank Langella) is really an infamous mobster. Now the gangster wants to kill Pope, who disguises himself as Frank LaMotta, the Italian American thug who has been hired to kill him.

While disguised in Caucasian makeup, Pope finds that he is treated differently, not only by whites but by blacks and Hispanics. Though he actually looks more like Mr. Potato Head, he easily fools his pea-brained enemies. This allows for some laughs, both cheap and hearty, but "True Identity" remains at its core a sketch instead of a full-blown farce.

Henry successfully assumes other identities during the course of the story -- a gay real estate agent, a British lord, James Brown's brother Val, but he is decidedly not up to playing the Moor. And yet he is obliged to tackle one of "Othello's" most pivotal scenes, apparently on the theory that if he is British he should be able to play Shakespeare.

Director Charles Lane, who garnered praise for the low-budget silent comedy "Sidewalk Stories," is also in front of the camera here as the hero's friend Duane, who has an insatiable yen for zaftig women. A tiny fellow, he seems as ill-equipped to handle these big babes as a big-budget picture. He has yet to establish his true identity as a filmmaker.

"True Identity" is rated R for profane language.

Copyright The Washington Post

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