Making the Grades
It's Murphy, Murphy & Murphy in Norbit -- a film where Eddie Murphy returns to his 90s' Nutty Professor phase, by playing multiple characters.
The first time we see the comedian, he's Mr. Wong, the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of town that doubles as an orphanage. When Norbit is just a baby he is literally dumped off here (from a moving car) and left for Mr. Wong to take care of. Growing up amongst the egg rolls, Norbit becomes friends with Kate, another girl fortunate enough to be adopted. The ensuing separation is painful for the young boy, although he eventually finds Rasputia.
Blossoming into a plus-sized woman, Rasputia (Murphy's second role -- and definitely the most prominent) takes hold of Norbit's life and convinces him to marry her. The now adult Norbit (Murphy again) is the object of not only Rasputia's affection and abuse, but also the disdain of her three brothers: Big Jack (Terry Crews), Earl (Clifton Powell) and Blue (Lester Speight), who appear to own the only construction business in town.
Together, Rasputia and her siblings intimidate the spectacled Norbit and virtually everyone else in this community. They also have a plan to purchase the orphanage and turn it into a strip club, which will ultimately involve the grown-up Kate (Thandie Newton), when she comes back to town with her fiancee Deion (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Ultimately this film represents possibly the grandest waste of technical talent I've ever seen. The makeup and special effects prowess required to have Murphy performing with himself is truly seamless. Even shadows and reflections trick your eyes into believing it can't possibly be the same actor playing both people. Mr. Wong's character is a further testament to what makeup artists can achieve.
Yet, the script also represents hate humor in similar grandiose form. The longer I viewed this film, the more repulsive I found the idea of being expected to laugh at the portrayals of verbal and physical abuse. Others that are ridiculed include (but are not limited to) obese people, the elderly, Orientals, Jews, and Christians (a group to which Rasputia claims to belong).
The potentially hurtful content in Norbit is weakly justified by an implausible ending of saccharine romance and revenge. While many may claim it is all "just for laughs", at some point each of us needs to ask a question of ourselves. Considering the many movies and other media products that attempt to create humor in a similar fashion, are we laughing with or at these stereotypes?
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Norbit.
Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, and Martin Lawrence have all portrayed the obese African-American matriarch. Mel Watkins, the author of “On the Real Side: A History of African-American Comedy” justified these types of depictions in the Philadelphia Daily News by saying:
“There’s a humorous tradition about aggressive black women. It goes back to the 19th-century minstrel shows, even when the minstrel shows didn’t have black performers. They would do it in blackface ... It showed black women to be unattractive and the black man to be weak because he was controlled by his woman. It’s been part of Americana for a hundred years and will remain as such because nobody seems to be interested in getting rid of it.”
How do you feel about his observations? Do you feel this “tradition” is beneficial, just benign, or guilty of perpetuating a negative stereotype?