Remember when all anyone could talk about was Fifty Shades of Grey? Those were the four words on everyone’s lips, from office breakrooms to bookclubs to NASA Mission Control. This fan-fiction-adjacent story designed to give middle-aged housewives a bit of a sensual thrill became omni-present in the zeitgeist – and not just with those housewives. In fact, that ghettoization of the story’s appeal is pretty unfair, as I know at least one person who falls outside of that category who saw last year’s film version of the book. That person… is me. Sure, I saw it in the context of comedians making jokes over it, but still – I saw it. Parodic auteur Marlon Wayans (does that mean he’s an auteur of parodies or a parody of an auteur? Honestly, both are pretty accurate) and practically anonymous director Michael Tiddes have decided to strike while the iron is hot and take that movie down with their own version: Fifty Shades of Black. A year later. Are people still talking about Fifty Shades of Grey in your breakroom? Yeah, not in mine either.
The plot is pretty well-cribbed from Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey – a young student (Hannah Steele played by Kali Hawk) must interview a successful businessman (producer Wayans’s Christian Black) when her roommate (Jenny Zigrino as Kateesha) is unable to do so. The two engage in a sexual fascination that soon leads to Christian’s revelation of his passion for bondage. They go back and forth on whether or not to get really involved, bickering here and there, and then the movie ends with no resolution. Actually, that’s how Grey ends – Black at least has the decency to add a conclusion for the characters amidst all the topical references to Bill Cosby, Black Lives Matter, and Kim Kardashian.
The parody film is an interesting cinematic category, existing solely to deliver jokes at the expense of another genre. In that objective sense, I must begrudging admit that Fifty Shades of Black is successful – because regardless of whether I personally find them amusing, the joke density here is off the charts, and the picture certainly skewers its target, evoking all of the beats of Fifty Shades of Grey, including the lack-of-plot. In that way I guess Tiddes does his job well. There was so little plot in Fifty Shades of Grey that Fifty Shades of Black (which is already 40 minutes shorter) has to jam in extended sequences taking shots at Whiplash and Magic Mike – to no real purpose. The parody is also similar to its source material in how key its female protagonist is to what few pieces actually work. Hawk is a dimly lit spot in the opaque mosaic composing this film, much in the same way that Dakota Johnson at least put some effort into her role as Anastasia Steele. Hawk is a beautiful woman who spends the entire movie being called “plain” and “ugly” and “just plain ugly,” to the extent that it becomes clear that co-writers Wayans and Rick Alvarez either hate her or are trying to point out the hypocrisy with which the original movie treated its female star. But these strained jokes don’t drive that point home – it’s only when Hawk is allowed to let loose and be cognizant of the picture’s flaws that this shines through. And that’s when she shines as well, as a performer that I would like to see more of. Specifically in a movie that doesn’t repeatedly slam her head between closing elevator doors. When she is given opportunities to showcase a real personality Hawk does what a hundred ugly jokes never could in exposing Hollywood’s double standard toward women. I do, however, want to make it clear that that last sentence gives the movie way more credit than it deserves.
It feels inevitable that I compare Fifty Shades of Black to 2016’s other terrible early comedy, Dirty Grandpa. It’s hard to say which one is funnier for two reasons: one) neither is very funny at all, and two) comedy is so subjective that even other people who did find these films enjoyable (and there were several, in both screenings) probably wouldn’t be able to agree. If you forced me to choose, I guess I would say Fifty Shades of Black got me closer to laughing more times, usually as a result of Hawk’s aforementioned outbursts, but even as I write that statement I doubt its veracity. At the end of the day these are both just really bad movies. Dirty Grandpa had the honor of being the first new movie that I saw this year to receive 1 star from me on Letterboxd, and (spoiler alert) Fifty Shades of Black will be the second. I suppose I give a slight edge to this movie because it tries to use its self-awareness to make a statement, as opposed to its messy counterpart, which was only self-aware to excuse its more insensitive aspects.
Is Fifty Shades of Black funny? Please stop asking me because I can’t really tell you. I don’t think so, no. Outside of the few moments when Hawk gets to play, I mostly cringed. Wayans’s character is a contradiction, flipping between two emotional extremes, neither of which are engaging, possibly because Marlon refuses to actually commit to anything as a performer – a real disappointment when you consider the fact that this is the same actor from Requiem for a Dream. Most of the characters are ridiculous, presumably created to offend those who don’t get it, and delight those who do. I didn’t leave Fifty Shades of Black offended – I left bored. And that’s probably a more damning verdict. So I guess congratulations are in order, Dirty Grandpa, at least you got some reaction out of me.
Fifty Shades of Black receives one out of five yawns: