Top Five (2014), a film by director and funny guy Chris Rock, hones in on the many themes and kinds of visual imagery that flood the life of a comedian who “doesn’t feel funny anymore.” Top Five follows the goings on of Andre Allen, a comedian whose career is in decline; the reasons why are obscured to him behind various character flaws. The film begins with a conversation between Andre and Chelsea Brown, a reporter for The New York Times, concerning fluctuations of culture over time. Andre’s opinions are based upon experiences from his own personal life, and, for show, he promptly points out the difficulty encountered by a black man simply trying to hail a cab in New York City. Though his position is far from inaccurate, given lots of stereotypical scenes seen in American mass culture, he waves for a cab, and the cab quickly stops.
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This film highlights and humourously questions many important issues of race and celebrity in contemporary culture. Andre is up against the obstacle of changing gears career-wise, as he wishes to switch from easy comedic to more dramatic film roles as a black performer. Unfortunately, the public only recognises him as Hammy the Bear, a burly crime fighting grizzly in a police vest, the part that made Allen’s slipping career.
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Throughout the film Andre is trying to promote his newest project entitled Uprize, a more serious route for his work to take, but the reception of the film isn’t what Andre had hoped for. The public, if they want Andre at all, want Andre to be funny and to stay funny. In celebrity culture, some might argue that it is forever difficult for actors and screenwriters to transition from lowbrow, slapstick places where they landed at the beginning of their careers to more respected genres with the power to drastically change the way they’re perceived. It’s as if audiences decide who a celebrity will turn out to be, and opportunities dwindle alongside box office earnings. Sad but sort of true; don’t we all cringe when athletes make clumsy attempts at being thespians?
To add insult to injury, Andre’s celebrity is hanging in the balance of his very public engagement to a reality television star. He’s forced to play into a painfully fictional lifestyle, yet his upcoming wedding turns into his last resort to stay in the public eye as he watches his new film flop. Andre so wanted to break through the barriers of cheap comedy and to feel he’s making progress, but the consumers, or viewers, only want to watch a bear with a gun. Such is the breaking point for his character in the film; Andre understands that he will only be known as for what he already is, but he also realises that it is what makes him happy.
More broadly, this film inspects the nature of roles for black American comedians in films. Taking its cue from a decent list of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence films, in which they portray characters who unwittingly perpetuate racial stereotypes, Top Five illustrates how black actors are placed in such roles that disguise their true identity, and yet the public can’t or doesn’t want to separate the fictional character from person acting the part. All three of these stars, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, are capable entertainers, regarded for their witty stand-up comedy routines as well as their forays into acting. Yet at his peak Eddie Murphy portrayed a stereotypical boisterous black American family in The Nutty Professor (1996), and Martin Lawrence remains best known for his outlandish performance in the film Big Momma’s House (2000) and its trail of sequels. Andre Allen’s performance as Hammy the Bear is a reflection of how the film industry possibly exploits comedians, of all races, into taking on obscene, unintelligent roles that change the way the public views them. In their absurd accessibility, such roles stick in the minds of viewers and shape their flat perspectives of who is on the big screen. But do stupidity and hilarity always have go to together?
Perhaps not. Top Five thinks more critically than most, dissecting a comedian who has placed himself in a glass box that he can’t escape, and who can’t discern if he even wants to escape. Hungry eyes everywhere dictate not only Andre’s image as a comedian on film, but also the way he once saw himself. Chris Rock appreciates the fact that viewers and consumption are just as important as an image and its message. Without either one, there is no dialogue, no culture. This film makes grand comedic gestures while deconstructing black American comedy, and employs the interrogative power visual culture to do both. How much of yourself do you have to give over to the world, for the world to answer back with a laugh?
Sean Steadman
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