Norbit is the film touted to have lost Eddie Murphy his well deserved Academy Award for Dreamgirls. First let’s start with how ridiculous this is. The Oscar is supposed to be for the “best” performance by an actor in a single year. Not a cumulative kudos for the other work they did in that year or any other year. And especially not as a Lifetime Achievement. But that is what happens routinely. Awards are given as tributes. And why not? It’s damn near impossible to compare performances when the characters are so vastly different. Alan Arkin beat Eddie Murphy because Little Miss Sunshine was the awards’ circuit darling AND Alan Arkin was in that Christopher Plummer category of “Well, he’s old and done great work before so we might as well give it to him for this kind of nothing part as an apology.” Eddie Murphy’s performance in Dreamgirls is full of pathos, comedy, and the added bonus of having him sing. Oh, and he is an amazing singer. But Dreamgirls in general was shut out for suspect (re: racial) reasons – honestly, how was this NOT nominated for Best Picture and Scorsese’s lightweight The Departed not only was nominated but WON? Talk about making up for past mistakes…. When Eddie Murphy lost to Alan Arkin, he walked out of the Kodak Theatre. Childish? Maybe. But if the rumor mill was to be believed, it was largely because of Norbit‘s release immediately preceding the voting that left a bad taste in the mouth of the voters. If that were the case, I would have been pissed too. Now THAT is childish. Secondly, as second rate as a film Norbit is – and it is pretty bad, which I’ll get to in a minute – what makes Norbit work at all – and it does work – is Eddie Murphy’s performance! You know, the very thing that the Academy Awards is supposed to be honoring. No matter what terrible film Murphy finds himself in – and they are legion – Eddie Murphy is ALWAYS consistently great. He is a fully committed comedian, unafraid to take risks, unafraid to look foolish, unafraid to offend, and while he is damn near invisible in some of his roles under heavy make-up, you always see Eddie Murphy’s star shining through. He is like Jerry Lewis. Big, bold, and underrated as an actor because he is too respected as a comedian. Apparently, these things are mutually exclusive (just ask Joan Rivers…).
Now, that said, Norbit is offensive and belabored and full of tripe and void of that many laughs. Norbit (Murphy) is a discarded baby, thrown from the back seat of a speeding car at the doorstep of a Chinese restaurant/orphanage. Mr. Wong (also Murphy in Chinese make-up) finds the baby and raises it as his own – even though he hates black people. Norbit tries his best to fit in, but is treated as an outcast. This is Mr. Wong’s tough love style. But Norbit’s childhood changes when he meets Kate, a fellow orphan. They bond, they “date” (as much as 10 year olds date), and eventually “get married” under the big oak tree in the back yard, complete with Ring Pop rings. But light-skinned Kate is suddenly adopted and Norbit is left to fend for himself in a cruel world. That is until he meets Rasputia. One day in the park two kids destroy his sand castle. They begin pounding on him, beating him senselessly until a heavy set girl comes to save him. He is so thankful that he agrees to be her boyfriend. Despite that she is a horrible person who treats him like property. Eventually they get married and Norbit goes to work for Rasputia (now also played by Murphy) and her family in their contracting business. He isn’t happy, but at least he has a family, a place to belong. Until Kate (Thandie Newton) comes back in the picture to shake things up. She plans to take over the orphanage from Mr. Wong and give back to her community. Now if only Norbit can dump Rasputia and convince Kate not to marry Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) he could finally have the life he always wanted. I now must pause for a diatribe. Perhaps I have been married to a dark skinned black man for too long or maybe I have just seen too many movies to ignore the blinding commentary, but the apartheid within the black community screams to me as very obvious. And nowhere more obvious than on film where white (or at least as close to it as you can get) is right. When it comes to beautiful black women we turn to Halle Berry, Beyonce, Kerry Washington, Whitney Houston, Iman, Beverly Johnson, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Tina Turner, Dorothy Dandridge, Vanessa Williams, Gabrielle Union, Jada Pinkett, Janet Jackson, Michelle Obama, Mariah Carey, and even as far back as Josephine Baker. And yes, THANDIE NEWTON. All light skinned. Darker black skinned women (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita N’yongo, Niecy Nash) have to fight to be seen as sexy and more often than not will play slaves, maids, and other versions of stereotypes. Dark black girls are more at liberty to be loud and bossy, strong and smart. And allowed (and expected) to be in touch with their black heritage; whereas light skinned black girls can play a myriad of parts and are accepted (and expected) to be sexual, demure, and easily palatable for white society. Look at the two most successful black sitcoms: The Cosby Show and Martin. Dark Dr. Cosby marries the sophisticated light skinned Phylicia Rashad and they have gorgeous mixed tone babies. Their eldest “daughters” – the ones to be sexualized – are played by the VERY light skinned Lisa Bonet and Sabrina Le Beouf; while their youngest daughters – the ones meant to make us laugh – are played by the darker skinned Tempestt Bledsoe and Keshia Knight Pulliam. Martin‘s two main females are played by the light skinned Tisha Campbell and the dark skinned Tishina Arnold. I bet you can guess which one plays his wife and which one plays his nemesis. I bring this up because Norbit pits the loud, obnoxious, dark skinned, overweight Rasputia against the demure, loving, light skinned, skinny Kate, played by Thandie Newton. Now, of course Rasputia is going to be dark skinned because she is played by Eddie Murphy. But that doesn’t change the dynamic. In fact, the entire movie pits them against one another. And ends up relying on stereotype and fat jokes to make us laugh (admittedly, it succeeds on occasion…Murphy is really going for it…). But I wonder if the roles were reversed – Thandie Newton in a fat suit as a horrible shrew and Eddie Murphy as the sexy girl of his dreams; or Hell, even darker skinned Regina King as his love interest – if the film would work on the intended level. There is a short cut by casting an almost white girl in the part of sex pot. We believe his attraction without question, regardless of Rasputia’s behavior. To continue my point of racial apartheid, look at the men in this film. Take Eddie Murphy out of it because he is an established entity and it is his movie. The bad guys in the film are all very dark skinned, save for the light skinned Cuba Gooding, Jr, whom we ASSUME is a good guy until we know better. Racial emotions are not limited to black women on film. We believe that Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, or Samuel L. Jackson could be bad guys much easier than we do Will Smith. True, Will Smith has made a career of playing heroes. But would that career choice have been possible if he were dark? Who knows. My guess is it would have been a lot harder. As far as Norbit’s “humor” goes, as mentioned, the jokes heavily rely on her weight, which depending on your taste level are hilarious or offensive. Weight jokes – like racial jokes, sexual jokes, or anything else “off-color” – have their place in comedy, but can reach a threshold of intolerance pretty quickly. Also, it seems ironic that a man whose best film is arguably The Nutty Professor – a film designed to give overweight people the love and respect they deserve – would then turn around and make a film that seems to do the exact opposite.