In a recent interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Marlon Wayans said that he’d hoped to “learn something” about sex from watching Fifty Shades of Grey, but was disappointed by the Sam-Taylor Johnson film’s “basic moves,” which he claims to have mastered in high school. Pity, then, that he hasn’t set out to teach us anything with Fifty Shades of Black, an aimless, if sporadically clever, parody that tirelessly conceives of human sexuality as punchlines for, rather than facets of, its shortsighted cultural ribbings.
The virgin this go around is Hannah (Kali Hawk), who’s as bad at opening doors as she is at making first impressions, quite literally crashing into Christian Black’s (Wayans) office and destroying a table-side art piece. Fifty Shades of Black, directed by Michael Tiddes, retains the Seattle setting from E.L. James’s novel and its film adaptation, though it’s mostly used for thankless establishing shots. The city’s only real mention comes from Kateesha (Jenny Zigrino), Hannah’s white, nymphomaniac roommate, who “thanks God every day that the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma,” presumably because the team took the city’s black women with them, leaving all of the black men for Kateesha’s choosing. It’s an unusual, even complex one-liner, cognizant as it is of NBA history’s racial and economic dimensions and what a team switching marketplaces means to the social status of a city’s nightlife.
If the adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey failed to examine how excessive wealth yields immediate passages to the deepest recesses of sexual desire, then Fifty Shades of Black fails to ask what’s potentially funny about a culture that takes personal sexual proclivities seriously enough to make E.L. James’s novel a phenomenon in the first place. The filmmakers reduce sex scenes to matters of poor hygiene or impotence, which include Hannah’s hairy legs and Black’s inability to last during sex for more than “one pump.”
Never mind that the film attributes Black’s sexual deficiencies to a music lesson gone awry from Mrs. Robinson (sadly, Florence Henderson) many years prior; even more deadening is a scene where Black, after failing to find a condom, lies to Hannah and has sex with her anyway, before offering a morning-after pill as an “after-sex mint” seconds later. It isn’t the film’s only rape gag; a friend of Hannah’s tries to slip Molly into her drink during an after work social. There’s also a Bill Cosby mention and a large, unwelcomed dildo that eventually finds its way up Black’s rectum.
Spoof movies should live and die by their mise-en-scène, where viewers remain attentive not just to the immediate action, but every inch of the frame in search of a hidden joke. Fifty Shades of Black isn’t interested in this option; rather, it wants to put all of its gags front and center, shifting bits from Fifty Shades of Grey so that they’re a little off, like when Hannah gets spanked, but can’t feel it because of her recent butt implants. Sometimes these jokes are visual, as when a locksmith, cop, thief, and magician cram into a room, Night at the Opera-style, to resolve a malfunction. The gag is stilted by a lack of attention to staging or editing, but at least the sheer absurdity of it is rooted in something clever. After all, what does a dominant do if the locks jam?
Fifty Shades of Black is ultimately a crude conceptualization of its zeitgeist-baiting premise. Predictably, the Black Lives Matter movement is mentioned in a throwaway line, and Black’s mother Claire’s (Jane Seymour) mistaken tasing of Hannah ends with her claiming she’s “just standing her ground.” If that weren’t torturous enough, Seymour is given another chance to make a fool of herself in a dinner scene where she imitates speaking Chinese to her adopted, adult daughter, who’s actually Korean, which comes as news to her.
The film’s most inspired non sequitur reveals Black’s past life as a dancer in Tampa—a clear reference to Magic Mike. As he takes the stage, decked out in Channing Tatum-esque gear, Black quickly strips off the clothing down to a red thong, before ripping it off to reveal what a front-row woman refers to as a “baby dick.” It’s a cheap gag, not least because it’s the identical term used by the Wayans brothers in a similar punchline from Scary Movie a decade and a half ago. Nonetheless, it reveals something deeper about Wayans’s sensibilities regarding gender performativity: He’s prone to writing men who lack sexual vigor or physicality, but has neglected to dig past the scrotum.