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‘Strictly Business’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1991

"Strictly Business" joins the growing ranks of innocuous black-oriented comedies hitting the screens. If this one's more entertaining than most, it's thanks to peppy Tommy Davidson. But it marches in step in all other respects. It's about selling out to the white world. There's a sexual object (Halle Berry) to slaver over. There's a soundtrack album available . . .

Upstairs, at a powerful New York real estate brokerage, Joseph C. Phillips (or "Waymon Tinsdale III" in this movie) is selling his soul to the white man. Downstairs, homeboy Davidson is working the mail room. Phillips has never been to Harlem. He uses all his tenses. He plays squash. He drives a BMW. Davidson lives in Harlem. He raps hip-hop. He's always late for work. He's been prodding Phillips to enroll him in the executive training program but the buppie keeps ignoring him.

One's black, the other's Bryant Gumbel.

Things change when beautiful Berry enters Phillips's big picture at a restaurant. When he finds out Davidson knows the woman, the enterprising executive works out a deal: an introduction to Berry for the training program.

Meeting her turns out to be easy enough. But the Brooks Brothers suit has gotta go. Davidson works on the non-brother's wardrobe. Phillips goes into this back-to-black transition with amusing gusto. But his comic business is essentially sitcom fluff. So's the fact that Berry instantly finds him cute. Phillips loses his momentum at work. He's in danger of losing his pet deal, a multimillion-dollar project involving -- who else? -- the Japanese. And waiting in the company shadows is ambitious racist David Marshall Grant, who stands to gain from Phillips's failings.

Director Kevin Hooks and scriptwriters Pam Gibson and Nelson George loft idly conceived polemics into the air. After Davidson (clearly the movie's conscience) gets on Phillips's cultural-identity case, Phillips lines up right behind him. And is black identity contingent on knowing the term "illin' "?

The filmmakers are pretty void on character too. Phillips (a regular on "The Cosby Show") is ridiculously strait-laced. Berry is sheer meat. "That ham," Davidson says, referring to her, "is cooked, glazed and ready to be sliced." Evil white bigot Grant is just one of the silly stereotypes on either side of the color line. Another is Anne Marie Johnson, Phillips's on-the-out girlfriend. A buppie composite, she wants marriage, a dream condo, vacations and that old favorite, "quality time."

Davidson (from "In Living Color") is the movie's best asset. He has an engaging smile, a thoroughly likable presence and a smart and quippy way about him. All he needs now is a movie that isn't "Business" as usual.

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