A rare moment where a black filmmaker got to live out exactly the same kind of unbelievable dream scenario white filmmakers have had the privilege of for ages.
Within the larger Wayans Family dynasty, multi-hyphenate Keenen Ivory Wayans has had an interesting career. He created a revolutionary sketch comedy show (“In Living Color”) and helped birth two of the best black films of all time, having co-written Hollywood Shuffle and writing/directing I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Years later, he’d become more of a producing figure for the family while still directing trash hits like Scary Movie and White Chicks, movies with a great commercial appeal but none of the critical appreciation of his earlier work.
Somewhere in the middle, he briefly flirted with becoming an action star. In a trio of films unrelated save for their common lead and general tenor of exaggerated masculinity, Wayans attempted to make the transition from Funnyman to Man Who Wears Huge Coats and Leaps Through the Air Duel Wielding Handguns. 1996’s maudlin The Glimmer Man and 1997’s execrable Most Wanted, the latter of which counted Wayans as a writer, are hard left turns. They veer too far in suspending disbelief to buy a lifelong comedic performer as a legit badass. But in 1994, the film that started this aborted transformation was widely derided and got something of an unfair shake.
A Low Down Dirty Shame, written and directed by Wayans, is the kind of film that could only have been made in the ‘90s. Starring Wayans as former LAPD detective Andre Shame, the movie plays like an antimatter universe version of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, filling out the intricately layered comedy of that blaxploitation send-up with deadly serious homages to John Woo and other Hong Kong gun ballet films. Shame is a D- List Shane Black private eye whose cases are more Jerry Bruckheimer explosion than Humphrey Bogart noir, tasked with a case related to him being kicked off the force alongside his trusty gal Friday, a young Jada Pinkett Smith as the sassy assistant Peaches.
Now, the film isn’t without its flaws. At times, it is difficult to buy Wayans in the leading role, particularly when he leans too heavily into the harder edged tone. The screenplay stretches the absolute limits of Wayans’ scripting ability, with a plot that moves at a solid pace, but is near unintelligible by the conclusion after a number of illogical turns. Also, a major sticking point that didn’t typify the negative reviews of the time comes from the film’s casual and rampant homophobia. This is definitely one of those films that when watched in 2017 seems ghastly but in 1994 was still more of the norm than the exception.
But outside of those obvious shortcomings, there’s still something lovable about this blatant misfire. When it’s not trying so hard to be a Chow Yun-Fat flick, Shame is a fun throwback that functions better as a vulgar cartoon than a legit genre exercise. The same rich detail that made Sucka so thoroughly hilarious is on display here, albeit in a different form. Few characters are well drawn, but even throwaway side characters are memorable, like a prostitute and her john who appear for literally 30 seconds of screentime, but are each given such ridiculous dialogue that you can easily imagine a whole film starring them long after they’ve exited Shame’s quest for justice.
The real heart of the film is the chemistry between Wayans and Pinkett Smith, who have an easygoing rapport beyond what’s been created on the page. Peaches, as a character, is a broad caricature, but Pinkett Smith breathes such life into her, making her feel real where other supporting players seem like cut-outs. Because you believe in Peaches, it’s easier to believe that Shame is a down and out PI, despite the fact that he has a dope car and owns like 15 kinds of guns. Wayans was too concerned with looking cool to do more for making his character sympathetic than not shave, but Pinkett Smith, through the emotional labor of an otherwise comic relief role, makes him seem more relatable. This might be one of the few action movies that could have leaned more into the romance for better results.
It’s hard to imagine a 2017 equivalent of this film. Oh, it’s easy to imagine reality star/Billboard sensation Cardi B playing Peaches for a new audience, sure, but what famous comedian today would be cocky enough to try to sell themselves as an unironic badass in a movie they penned and helmed? Kevin Hart could do it if he really wanted to, but he’s too self-aware for that. That’s why he teams up with The Rock for any of his action outings.
The beauty is that Wayans wasn’t. Or if he was, he still didn’t care that he’d look faintly ridiculous, because he was having too much of a blast living out a fantasy. It’s not the finest film ever made, clearly, but it’s leagues more entertaining than the universally turgid critical reaction it received upon release. At its best, it’s a rare moment where a black filmmaker got to live out exactly the same kind of unbelievable dream scenario white filmmakers have had the privilege of for ages.