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Movie Review

Alderman Mays Gilliam’s bizarre run for the highest office in the land begins when he’s picked out of relative political obscurity by conniving party leaders to bolster their image with minorities (Gilliam is African-American). Mays toes the party line for a time, then decides he won’t be The Man’s puppet and pulls out all the stops to secure votes from the ‘hood. He wears denim jackets and sweat suits to rallies. He pumps up the jam at fund-raising balls. He speaks the "language of the people" (which evidently includes a fair amount of vulgarity). So, backed by a throng of newly politically savvy wrestling fans and rap hounds, Mays finds himself neck and neck with his opponent on election day.

positive elements: Mays seems to genuinely care about the needs and concerns of average Americans. In fact, that’s exactly the character trait that prompts his political party to select him. (They think he’s quaint but cute, and believe he’ll endear himself to a generation fed up with plastic politicians.) He also tries hard to honor his promises. Early on, as a Washington, D.C., alderman, he promises a neighbor that if organized labor groups shut down the bus route on their street, he’ll personally drive him to work. The buses do stop running, and Mays starts driving, even though it happens at an extremely inopportune time. He also risks his life to save an elderly woman from being blown up in a condemned building.

spiritual content: Campaigning in a Memphis, Tenn., church, Mays informs the congregants that he "loves the Lord and the King—Elvis Presley." His opponent is fond of saying, "God bless America, and no place else."

sexual content: While breaking up with him, Mays’ girlfriend screams, "I’ve had better sex with guys with spina bifida." That comment is offensive on so many levels it’s hard to resist documenting it in every negative category this review holds. And it serves as a prelude to an ongoing stream of sexual banter which includes shots about homosexual, pedophilic politicians. To prevent sexual scandals from touching their candidates, Mays’ party leaders hire "super whores" to sleep with the men (nothing explicit is ever shown, and Mays resists his assigned woman’s advances, but the joke persists throughout the film). As for women’s fashion, low-cut necklines are par for the course. Mays’ "assigned whore" reminisces about how she got started in the business (moviegoers briefly see her flash her (blurred) breasts while participating in a Girls Gone Wild type of porn video). A presidential debate includes a line from Mays that equates America with a large-breasted woman and a Bentley automobile with a naked woman inside.

violent content: A building explodes seconds after Mays rescues a woman who was inside looking for her cat. Mays’ ex-girlfriend throws papers at him—along with her engagement ring. Later, when she learns that he is running for president, she wants him back, a state of mind leading to a succession of "humorous" encounters that almost all end with her being hauled off by security guards (one ends with her running headfirst into a dumpster). More disturbing is a scene in which Mays rears back and throws a punch right at her face (he stops a scant inch from her nose). Mays and his brother, Mitch, always greet each other with friendly—hard—punches, usually aimed at the gut. On one occasion their physical affection turns into what can only be called a fight. Blows land on stomachs, arms and faces. Mays winds up losing the brotherly bludgeoning and crashes down on top of a coffee table. Unprovoked, Mitch slaps two men and women (all strangers) across the face upon arriving in D.C. Mays imagines himself getting shot (no blood is shown). A TV commercial concocted by his opponent depicts the White House exploding. At a pro wrestling match, Mays is hit, kicked and thrashed with a chair. His political opponent, the country’s vice president, hits his colleagues and employees when things don’t go his way.

crude or profane language: One bleeped f-word. One muffled f-word. One crystal-clear f-word. Those obscenities are joined by nearly 20 s-words and three times that many milder profanities. God’s name is abused a half-dozen times. The n-word is used.

drug and alcohol content: Alcohol is consumed at parties, dinners, etc. Mays refuses to take campaign contributions from a company that "sells malt liquor to kids" (bottles with nipple caps for babies are shown) but he insists that drug policy should be made by people who have smoked Chronic, bragging that he has gotten high. A group of political fat cats smoke cigars while awaiting election results.

other negative elements: Political speeches include backhanded endorsements of gay rights and legalized drugs. Mays’ popular social agenda is at best a murky mess (for instance, parents are encouraged to smack their kids around to keep them from drinking). Background music features objectionable performers DMX, Nate Dogg, Nelly, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Outkast.

conclusion: In a generous frame of mind I might call this Mr. Gilliam Goes to Washington. The film pits Mays’ good deeds, candor and compassion against the crass materialism, duplicity and self-centeredness of entrenched D.C. types. On that level, I have no misgivings. It’s when it strays into race-specific humor (something it does a lot) that this Chris Rock vanity piece goes wrong. Some moviegoers will say Head of State is simply the antithesis of Barbershop. But it’s not quite that easy. In Barbershop, a black barber directs cutting remarks toward such revered black icons as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson. But it didn’t make the broad, sweeping condemnations of an entire race the way Head of State does when it portrays most whites as foolish, money-grubbing, power-hungry racists who will do anything to prevent a black man from getting ahead. "Do you really think these people (whites) give a d--n about you?" Mays asks an elderly black woman, reminding her of church burnings, lynchings and, inexplicably, Michael Jackson’s ever-whitening skin tone. A concluding image is that of throngs of white suburbanites frantically racing to polling booths to prevent a black man from becoming President. Never mind that the white man they’re voting for is so slimy that leeches wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near him. That must be why Associated Press entertainment writer Christy Lemire called Head of State "the latest in a recent series of white-people-are-so-lame movies, a theme that isn’t getting any funnier, no matter how many times it’s dragged out."

Not all the movie’s jokes fall flat. And a few of its cultural observations ring true. Any time "politics as usual" takes a beating, count me in for a ringside seat. But not even Chris Rock (the film’s director, producer, writer and star) seems to have very high expectations for this sloppy exercise in political satire. "I haven’t really made a great movie yet," the comedian says, "so I couldn’t let anybody down." Want my advice for the easiest way to keep from being let down? Don’t see his movie.

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Chris Rock as Mays Gilliam; Bernie Mac as Mitch Gilliam; Tamala Jones as Lisa Clark; Lynn Whitfield as Debra Lassiter; Dylan Baker as Martin Geller; Jude Ciccolella as Mr. Earl; Robin Givens as Kim; Stephanie March as Nicki; Nick Searcy as Vice President Lewis


Chris Rock ( )





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Steven Isaac

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