Eddie Murphy Traffics Racial Stereotypes in 'Tower Heist'
Is the Oscar worthy actor taking us back to 'Birth of a Nation'?
It’s not anything new to say that we like movies about criminals. There’s a vicarious, transgressive thrill to watching people pull off a complicated scheme. And that’s especially true when the crime represents reparations -- revenge on a casino owner who gave a Vegas original a heart attack in "Ocean’s 11," a con who catches the mob boss who killed a white grifter’s black mentor in "The Sting."
This year has ushered in a new trend in crime movies, and it’s not an encouraging one: The African-American character who teaches a bunch of white boys how to break the law. And there’s something particularly disturbing about seeing actors like Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx go from Academy Award nominations and wins to work that seems to play off of stereotypes about black criminal inclinations. One has to wonder if prominent black actors are taking inferior roles to cash a paycheck, or simply to keep working in a world that offers few prestige roles for black men and women.
In "Horrible Bosses," a group of abused white working stiffs decide to murder their employers for reasons ranging from watching their superiors drive the company they gave their lives to into the ground, to being victimized by sexual harassment and assault. But they have no acquaintance with violence or crime of any kind, so they seek out a bar in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and seize on the first man who’s willing to talk business with them. In this story, that’s an ex-convict who goes by the colorful name of “Motherfucker Jones,” played by Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx, who initially robs them blind.
It’s a patently ludicrous premise, but Tower Heist repeats it almost exactly. In that movie, Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), the manager of a luxury apartment called the Tower, discovers that the investment banker who owns the penthouse is a fraud who ripped off their pension fund and is likely to walk. Desperate, he enlists “Slide” -- played by Eddie Murphy, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Dreamgirls" -- a petty criminal and his life-long neighbor, to help him and his friends learn to steal.
When one of them questions Slide’s credentials, Kovacs explains that “he’s been arrested a bunch of times, he doesn’t pay income tax, and he owns two Doberman Pinschers. Give him some respect.” A sequence where Slide sends his new co-conspirators out into a mall to shoplift merchandise to prove they have the guts to carry out their scheme—and then cleans out their wallets—involves some genuinely funny physical comedy.
But both movies suggest that white wannabes are gullible in assuming their black enlistees are criminal experts, and also for assuming that the black criminals are their friends. Motherfucker Jones ultimately confesses to his white conspirators that he went to jail for pirating movies (and not just any movie, the supremely sappy "Snow Falling on Cedars") and that he’s never killed anyone in his life. He takes the money they gave him for “murder consulting” anyway, the price for assuming that black people have innate criminal talents.
In "Tower Heist," Slide double-crosses his counterparts, rebuking them for thinking they had achieved some sort of camaraderie with him.
“I’m a thief,” he tells them in a mid-heist showdown. “I keep telling you I’m a thief but you don’t believe it. I know what I am. You’re the one who’s confused.” There’s no solidarity in thievery it appears.
At the end of the day, even if both movies imply that white people should pay penalties for making stupid inferences about African-American men, they don’t do much to disabuse stereotypes about people who have been through the criminal justice system. Motherfucker Jones is tattooed, profane, and conniving—and the fact that he was locked up for wildly overaggressive enforcement of copyright laws around bootleg movies is treated like it’s hilarious rather than horrifying.
Similarly, Slide is the kind of guy who fights with his girlfriend in the street, and hollers as he’s being arrested that Kovacs should tell his girlfriend “to use that money I gave her to get her teeth fixed” to instead bail him out. In the end, these movies affirm the idea that black people are criminals, profane and not to be trusted, dismantling the myth of their expertise but not their crookedness.
That’s not to say that it’s not possible to give a great performance playing a criminal. The world of movies would be a poorer place without Terrence Howard in "Hustle & Flow" or Daniel Day-Lewis in "Gangs of New York," Morgan Freeman in "The Shawshank Redemption" or Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight." But all of those characters had redeeming and humanizing qualities -- white characters like Day-Lewis and Hedger free of the weight of history that personified the black race as inherently savage. Motherfucker Jones and Slide don’t make the mark of those characters. Instead, they’re banal and depressing affirmations of the artistic and political status quo.