There’s a gag in Undercover Brother that dares to cross the line of good taste – and no, it’s not the scandalous size of Eddie Griffin’s Afro or the ugly super-funkiness of his wardrobe. The bold joke is the movie’s completely hyperbolic and uncharitable – and very funny – tweak of Colin Powell, who here becomes General Boutwell, a celebrated Uncle Tom who gives up the chance to run for President in order to launch his own fried-chicken franchise. For a few moments, as Billy Dee Williams grins over his chicken bucket, you can feel the glee with which the director, Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man), skewers the image of a respectable black man bending his will to the white world.
The rest of the time, Lee’s images of black and white stereotypes are agreeably silly yet altogether too thin and vanilla safe. Undercover Brother traffics in the kind of prechewed racial cliches that have already been through the corporate stand-up-comedy mill. Griffin’s Undercover Brother, for instance, is supposed to be the ’70s inner-city version of an Austin Powers doofus out of time, except that Griffin, who is usually a rascal, spends far too much of the movie doing exaggerated kung fu howls (old, old joke) and shouting things like ”Holy Motown!” before he tosses a pair of Afro picks as ninja weapons. After joining a rebel group of spies who’ve discovered that there really is a conspiracy orchestrated by ”the Man,” Griffin goes undercover as a Caucasian-wannabe office dork and gets ensnared by a white temptress (played in full porno pout by Denise Richards), who forces him – horrors! – to choke down mayonnaise. That’s a pretty funny bit, but the rest of the movie feels only slightly less lost in the pop racial past than its groove-thang hero.