From a wide angle, popular culture tends to portray African-American culture as pretty homogenous, when it’s portrayed at all. Even when a mainstream film includes a token black character, as often as not they’re set up as being just like the rest of the cast, but darker, and they’re meant to say something about the white main characters more than to represent their own perspective. And while there’s a certain benefit to equality, we end up ignoring the fact that African-American culture is as diverse — and even stratified — as American culture as a whole.
The dominance of white Americans in popular culture tends to mix these layers for people with my complexion. I can look up to the Floreks on The Good Wife or down on the Chances on Raising Hope and still pretty much see my own face looking back at me. But if all I ever saw was Honey Boo-Boo and The 700 Club, I could easily draw lines separating me from those kind of white people. Especially outside cities, we tend to hang around with people more or less like us, and without media representation these categories ossify.
Which is partly why I find a certain strain of African-American films so fascinating. Since so few movies are marketed to the black community in the first place, many of those that do get made are guaranteed a broad cross-cutting audience, which makes them the perfect venue for an ongoing dialogue between different African-American subcultures. The Tyler Perry-produced Peeples sets the solidly middle-class Wade (Craig Robinson) against the tony family of his girlfriend, Grace (Kerry Washington).
Wade sings children’s songs about using words instead of peeing on things — I wasn’t aware that this was a thing, but okay — and aspires to work as a child psychologist. His brother, Chris (Malcolm Barrett) is a “doctor” repairing some sort of dolls. It’s not scut work and they seem to do all right for themselves, but the Peeples live in another world altogether.
I couldn’t really figure out what Grace does, but her father Virgil (David Alan Grier) is a federal judge; her mother Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) was a one-hit wonder in the 1970s; her sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) is on-air talent for CNN; and her brother Simon (Tyler James Williams) is still in prep school, but he’s inventing mind-reading helmets. Wade intends to propose to Grace when he shows up at their Sag Harbor estate, but Virgil doesn’t exactly take a liking to an ordinary guy like Wade sniffing around his little girl.
There’s no shortage of awkward family gathering movies, many of which involve marriages in order to smash two different families together. But when they’re African-American families, questions of class and authenticity can’t be far away. Peeples doesn’t tackle them head-on like Jumping the Broom did, but it’s there. It’s there when Wade calls the Peeples the “Black Kennedys”, and when Simon — “Sy” — tries to act the thug. It’s there in Virgil’s pride — shared with his father (Melvin Van Peebles) — in his historically black fraternity, and in Wade and Chris’ snark about it. It’s there when Wade honestly loses his wallet and has to endure just as much suspicion from Virgil as from a racist old white lady at the grocery store.
But it’s not everywhere; the Peeples have plenty of other, less charged problems below the surface. Gloria’s camerawoman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis) is along for the weekend, and most of the family seem oblivious that they’re not just “besties”. Daphne’s alcoholism is common knowledge, but her garden holds a few secrets. Even the straitlaced Virgil has skeletons in his closets. It’s no wonder Grace hasn’t been totally up-front with Wade, using a “safe word” to cut off open discussion in their relationship.
And all of this is wall-to-wall hilarious. Tina Gordon Chism has helped write good screenplays, but this is her first time on her own and her first time directing, and she does a great job of it. The timing throughout is perfect; Chism keeps us bouncing from one laugh to the next but never goes so far in search of the laugh that we’re wincing instead.
The Peeples are characters without becoming caricatures. I can imagine where Grier might have pushed Virgil on an In Living Color sketch, for instance, but he dials it back enough to keep from getting obnoxious over the length of a feature film. Robinson is basically playing Darryl from The Office again, but I could stand to see more of that character anyway. Williams, after some great work this last season in Go On, continues his smooth transition from his younger work. And I’m so used to seeing Merkerson on Law & Order that I don’t think I’ve ever seen her show off her gift for comedy before.
In fact, with all this going on it would be easy to forget that Washington just doesn’t have that much to do, which is sort of a shame. She basically operates as an excuse to drag Wade into the situation and then fades into the background as the sparks fly. But other than that small disappointment there’s a lot to love about this big, kooky family.
Worth It: yes
Bechdel Test: fail.