The execrable Norbit may be the first film since the Wilson administration to openly advocate driving African Americans into the sea. As the movie concludes and the evil Rasputia (Eddie Murphy, in one of his many roles) and her brothers are defeated by an angry crowd, the scene’s similarity to a lynch mob is unmistakable. Rasputia is a horrifying whale of a woman (literally pierced in the ass by a harpoon), and her big, muscular brothers are all dark-skinned, reinforcing their status as the sexualized “bucks” of old. As they are forced to flee, we pause to notice that the screaming, riotous townspeople are all white, though the lone black person to remain behind is Kate (Thandie Newton), a woman so light-skinned as to be practically Caucasian. More than that, though, she’s the physical contrast to Rasputia: skinny, bordering on anorexic, and in possession of the flattest chest in Christendom. Her waif-like appearance is all that is good and decent and true, if only because she’s also naïve, moronic, and utterly subservient. She will do as she’s told, even if that means marrying Norbit himself by the closing credits, a masochistic turn wholly justified by her dubious racial status. She can be tamed; the wild, independent – and darker – blacks must be banished to the hinterlands.
Ignore all calls for this movie’s disposal in the nearest ash can because it stereotypes the morbidly obese. Sure, Rasputia is like a chocolate Michelin Man; loud, bossy, and dishonest, but these are also seen as the sure-fire, identifiable traits of the modern black woman. Rasputia’s “type” drives all good men away, leaving only emasculated Norbits and feminized girlie men (like the exercise guru forced to sleep with her in order to get ahead), who are the inevitable byproducts of a matriarchal culture run amok. As such, you have con-artists like Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who breed only with the white and the near-white, as evidenced by his fling with Kate and pair of women who show up near the end to collect their child support. Deion is a scoundrel – intentionally so – but he’s not the enemy of the piece, as what choice had he given his options in the black community? He was forced to live on the run because black women done gone too far; keeping black men in a virtual prison without hope for escape. Deion sees Norbit as having ceded his genitalia to the steamroller of black womanhood, and he’s not about to meet the same fate.
So when Pimp Sweet Jesus (Eddie Griffin) shows up, he is not so much comic relief as a nostalgic symbol of black male potency. Both Sweet Jesus and his partner Lord Have Mercy (Katt Williams), who bears a striking resemblance to Superfly himself, are unabashed, supremely self-confident players in the old school sense. They traffic in women, express not a hint of guilt or shame, and as such are quietly envied by every other black man in the movie. They are simply beyond getting taken, and are the lone holdouts to both the feminist and civil rights movements. And yet, as presented, they are not racist caricatures, unless of course you believe blaxploitation was a mere continuation of the minstrel show, only with guns, tits, and pounds of cocaine. When we consider the fates that befall all of the other characters, these pimps stand alone in their failure to meet with humiliation and pain. They are like a running Greek chorus; an alternative path to dehumanization and a life spent in service to castrating harpies.
Still, every racial and ethnic group under the sun is taken to task, from shady, karate-chopping Asians (Mr. Wong, played again by Eddie Murphy) to lusty, drunken Mexicans who whistle like banshees for big-hipped women capable of bearing them a gaggle of proud sons. It seems fitting, then, that Rasputia’s comeuppance is in some cheap Mexican strip club, for what other way to tame the beast than to subject her to sweaty machismo? Eventually, she’ll get knocked up, domesticated, and only then allowed to return home. Italians are also raked over the coals, as they’re reduced to loud, boorish owners of da pizza pie a-restaurants who are rarely seen without massive pots of sauce spilling over on the stove. Needless to say, these assorted Luigis and Marios are among the first to challenge Rasputia and her brothers, much like every Italian in a Spike Lee movie is a red-faced bigot in a dirty undershirt. Only non-ethnic whites seemed to escape scrutiny, though they are portrayed as xenophobes always but one step away from pushing for a sundown town.
The most honest statement in the movie comes from Mr. Wong, who says, “I am racist…I hate blacks and Jews, though both seem to love Chinese food.” Sure, it’s as crude and ridiculous as saying all Jews go into banking or all Native Americans are alcoholics, but give him points for not shying away from his prejudice. In a way, it’s the closest the movie comes to a confession, for how could it deny that it is in fact mining our fears for dollars? If America stands for anything, it is in opposition to proud black women, procreating black men, successful Asians (why else is Mr. Wong’s property in jeopardy of being taken away?), and Italians who are not constantly being distracted by a-giant a-meatball. Remember, this movie was number one at the box office in its opening weekend and at my screening, all the colors of the rainbow were roaring with delight. Everyone loves to be reduced to a stereotype, as everyone harbors one or two themselves. Only let’s keep our facts straight and not confuse the issue. The obese, contrary to popular opinion, are not funny. Yes, they are as unhappy and cruel as this film portrays, but to laugh in the face of their crumb-ridden schemes is to grant them a power they do not deserve. This one is about race.