J. A. Bernstein

21 Junk Street

It seems to be protocol for Hollywood films these days that the token black character is:

  1. tough
  2. inclined to speak with a voice from the street, even when addressing dainty, suburban, white folks
  3. perpetually angry, yet ultimately conciliating.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller's 21 Jump Street does little to dispel these notions, casting, as it does, the 80's era rapper Ice Cube in the role of police captain. Whether this is a nod to the original series' music is unclear, although the first season's theme song, from what I recall, involved a synthesizer, beat-box, and saxophone. As for what an original member of N.W.A. is doing in the role of police chief, only Hollywood will tell. It is worth pointing out that Ice Cube's most controversial song, and the one that gained him street cred, was "Fuck the Police," a masterful ballad with lyrics like

But don't let it be a black and a white one
'Cause they'll slam ya down to the street top
Black police showing out for the white cop

These lines obviously presaged Rodney King, if not the slippery, racially-charged roles in which Ice Cube would ultimately find himself (my favorite is the sight of him wrestling an anaconda, alongside Jennifer Lopez). In 21 Jump Street, he tells his new, pasty subordinates, "I know what you're thinkin': angry, black captain. Well guess what? I'm black, and I worked my ass off to be the captain. And sometimes, I get a little angry, so suck a dick!" The homophobia of the film is also more attributable to the Frat-Pack brand of humor than any real "street-speak." After all, Ice Cube's erstwhile collaborator, Tupac, had few qualms about admitting that he was raped while in prison, whereas Jonah Hill and his partner can't even bother to stick their fingers in each other's throat without succumbing to a fear of gayness. Truthfully, they make Homer Simpson look tolerant.

As for what Tupac or Easy-E would think of this "angry black captain," who reminds his listeners to "embrace yo stereotypes," simple: cash money, mothafucka. Were he alive today, and still struggling to pay off his debts, Tupac would undoubtedly be sponsored by Pepsi, much as Michael Jordan continues to regale us with Hanes ads—probably to pay for his divorce.

The problem with films like 21 Jump Street isn't that they lack humor, or even that they're crude, neither of which is new for Hollywood, but that they're now self-assuming. Here's the Deputy Police Chief, speaking metafictively, perhaps:

Fortunately for you two, we're reviving a canceled undercover police program from the eighties, and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.

Whether this is Hill accounting for his own forlorn project or making a comment on Hollywood is hard to say, but it certainly explains the likes of Miami Vice, Charlie's Angels, The Smurfs, The Jetsons, Wall Street, and countless other revivals. Of the 10 highest-grossing films in 2011, nine of them were sequels or prequels, with The Smurfs being the only "original."

What's even more disconcerting is how the films trade in stereotypes, even while purporting to abandon them. "I don't understand this place," says the continually flummoxed cop, Channing Tatum, upon returning undercover to high school, where the jocks are now mocked, eco-consciousness is cool, and one can get expelled for punching a "little black gay kid." In fact, the film's central conceit is that the brawny, Waspish Tatum is consigned to the lab with AP chemistry geeks while his partner, the plump, sensitive Jonah Hill, infiltrates the dealers' top rings and gets invited to the coke-sniffing parties. But even Hill can't help but mocking the voice of the competing black officer, Holly Robinson Peete, who returns to her old role in a cameo. And his partner, much to the audience's delight, dispenses with their nemesis, "They don't serve vegan in prison, bitch." In fact, the word bitch pops up so many times in this film—often without humor—that one actually longs for the quiet moral rejoinders of the original series' endings.

Even Johnny Depp is something of a welcome sight in this film, less for the air of normalcy he provides with his cameo—in fact, the sight of him without eyeliner, paint or mascara is rather shocking—than for the understated humor he offers. "You're an amazing actor," Hill tells him, after Depp reveals his undercover identity, to which Depp dutifully responds: "You little dweebs, do you have any idea how difficult it is to infiltrate a gang like this?" Again, it's hard to say if this is metafictive, but Depp has always prided himself on taking iconoclastic roles, despite his stint in Caribbean, and if anyone can attest to the difficulties of reconciling Hollywood's drudgery with the quest for a meaningful identity, it's him. But where Depp employs a bit of subtlety and range, portraying everyone from demonic barbers to drug-addled journalists, all Hill and his ilk can do is mock gays, vegans, and blacks, albeit unconsciously, and in spite of their efforts to abstain. "Teenage the fuck up!" Ice Cube tells them, as they head out on assignment. Unfortunately, and like much of Hollywood, they have.

J. A. Bernstein is the pen name of Rob Lowe. When he isn't wooing starlets, he's pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Southern California. He would like to add that his eyelashes are real.