Earlier this year, Bill Cosby ruffled a few feathers during a NAACP dinner when he criticized po’ blacks for not taking advantage of the liberties secured for them by the civil rights pioneers of the ‘60s. Cosby said, “I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is’...You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!” Critics came down hard on Cosby, but the backlash was somewhat misdirected. The comedian’s frustration wasn’t offensive as much as his attitude, because unlike the angry black voices from Marc Levin’s fierce Slam, Cosby’s words not only lacked sympathy but reeked of upper-class condescension. It’s incredible to think that this was the same man responsible for Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which followed a group of inner-city black kids to apply lessons learned from a fictional superhero show (The Brown Hornet) to their daily lives.
Cosby may no longer talk like these low economic people, but he was doing a fine job “slumming it” between 1972 and 1984 as the voice of Mushmouth, among others, on the cartoon show he created. Gen Xers are familiar enough with the ‘toon, and though a modern version of the program plays everyday in the film, no one in Fat Albert‘s unusually merry hood seems to be familiar with Fat Albert’s gang, except for one or two tots, one of whom encourages Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams) to clean up the crap coming out of his mouth. The spectacle of a whitened Mushmouth speaking in perfect English and asking to be called Mouth is meant to flatter elitist moralists and is somewhat disturbing in light of Cosby’s criticism of people who talk like Mushmouth in the real world. Though the character reclaims his identity by film’s end, you get the impression that Cosby’s co-screenwriter Charles Kipps was responsible for the generous regression.
In Fat Albert, a lonely girl’s teardrop opens some sort of portal between her North Philly neighborhood and the world inside her television set, which allows Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson, whose imitation of Star Jones on SNL is considerably more inspired) and his posse to enter the girl’s Afterschool Special (read: Love Don’t Cost a Thing all over again!), where they hang-out with the likes of Aaron Carter, skip rope at the local mall, and mispronounce “DVD” (in the film, the first season of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is coming to video for the first time and no one knows about it!). From the local junkyard to the corny block party where Fat Albert comes up with an impromptu rap, there isn’t a scene in the film that doesn’t look as if it were shot on some studio back lot. In this way, the film’s mise-en-scène, like its characters, struggles for realness.
Fat Albert begins promisingly, but looks can be deceiving: It only gives the illusion that it is grappling with black identity in America. As soon as Fat Albert and the Kids enter the film’s live-action Philly (the film was shot entirely in California), they begin to lose their luster. Meanwhile, Doris (Kyla Pratt) seems to be suffering from a similar identity crisis: The girl is really sad, ostensibly because her foster sister Lauri (Dania Rodriquez) is some kind of Anglo aspirant, but while the friendly Lauri’s conventional good looks seemingly allow her to mix well with the pretty white girls at her school, Doris’s problems (she doesn’t have any friends) don’t exactly have anything to do with her physical appearance. Fat Albert doesn’t lose his color in the film as much as he becomes invisible, a regression fantasy that has nothing to say about black/white relations (though I’d probably become sick too if I had to go to school with Aaron Carter)—it’s just a time-sensitive gimmick to get Fat Albert back inside Doris’s television.
If Doris, a would-be track star, is a major downer, it’s apparently because she misses her grandfather, and if Fat Albert has anything to say about it, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with victory at the next track meet. A product of a modern Cosby mindset, Fat Albert conflates bourgeois acceptance with personal self-worth, setting up friendship as a privilege that can only be attained if Doris turns her frown upside down and kicks it up a notch on the track field. And true to the spirit of the original cartoon series, Fat Albert allows its chubby hero to tirelessly spit out maxims like “You have to start believing in yourself” without really allowing him to get to the root of anyone’s problems. If this man-child’s condescension is easier to take than Cosby’s before an NAACP crowd last May, it’s because the naïve Fat Albert’s carelessness can be explained by one thing: Unlike his creator, he actually lives below the poverty line.