Who is “the man?” Is it Eugene Levy’s lovable Andy Fidler, the dental supply salesman caught up in a game he never wanted to play? Is it Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson), that same street-tough, quick talking bad boy we all learned to love in “Pulp Fiction”? Is it the Internal Affairs agents who think that Vann killed his former partner? Or perhaps “the man” is inside all of them and indeed everyone? This is the question director Les Mayfield (“Blue Streak”) tries to answer in his most recent study of the human drama, “The Man.”
Mayfield succeeds where Paul Haggis failed in “Crash,” the 2004 look at racial interactions in Los Angeles. By wrapping his message in a mistaken identity turned buddy comedy, Mayfield makes the issue of race accessible, engaging and even humorous. Beneath its candy shell of car chases and fart jokes, there is a milk chocolate center that celebrates and dissects the diversity of American society.
Fidler is a salesman mistaken for Vann by an arms dealer who is trying to set up the purchase of some stolen guns. Vann must use Fidler to break the case and arrest the bad guys, and their relationship blossoms into a hilarious friendship.
We can accept “the man” to be synonymous with the government, the power structure or the social institutions that further engender white privilege. But in this tour-de-force of contemporary race relations, the idea of “the man” manifests itself in both Fidler and Vann, as power shifts between the two.
The theater laughs as Jackson tells Levy, “You are my bitch. My own, personal bitch,” but as the sweet, sweet candy shell of that line melts in your mouth, you realize the racial dominance that Jackson is exerting over the fish-out-of-water Levy. This motif of who is “the bitch” and who is “the man” changes throughout the film, just as racial paradigms in society change and adapt to situations. The idea of “the man” is not only a fluid concept, but also a colorblind one.
The two characters, like in any odd couple pairing, are two extremes—two caricatures whose interaction provides the forced dialogue that keeps the audience laughing. Jackson plays his character as if he just walked off the set of “Shaft” (a film which is only five years behind him), trying hard to mimic the bravado of early blaxploitation films. Both succeed in their portrayals, and the differences between the characters create the comic and racial tension which most of the jokes depend on. Levy is about as white as he can be, so much so that his business is the sale of dental products, the very whitening of teeth.
Mayfield has done it again, simultaneously lampooning and furthering our stereotypes of race. Everyone can take some lessons away from this film. First, in the words of Special Agent Vann Derrick, “trust can get you dead.” And lastly, “just be the man.” If we challenge our preconceptions of victimization, privilege and power, we can create a better tomorrow. Or at least fight crime while we’re doing it.