After a few years as a bit player and standup comic, Keenen Ivory Wayans made an impressive debut as writer/director/star in 1988 with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a lampoon of the "blaxploitation" films of the early '70s. This scrappy, no-budget indie was probably the best of the freeform genre parodies that dominated movie comedy in the '80s, and those of us with a fondness for that disreputable genre enjoyed watching the likes of Jim Brown, Antonio Fargas, Isaac Hayes and that underrated real actor, Bernie Casey, send their old selves up.
Now Wayans, in only his second theatrical feature as writer/director/star (he spent the intervening years at the heart of TV's In Living Color), has decided to try his hand at the genre for real. A Low Down Dirty Shame still plays most of its script for laughs, but it's not a spoof--it's of the genre now usually referred to as "action comedy." It's an entertaining picture, but it's also an example of how much easier it is to parody something than to play it straight.
There's none of the hard, edgy, angry atmosphere that made the old "blaxploitation" flicks so memorable, even though most of them were sloppy, amateurish pieces of filmmaking. A Low Down Dirty Shame is cheerful and jocular--it doesn't even have the dramatic bite of I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, in fact. In Sucka, Wayans played the hero, Jack Spade, as a pleasant fellow unfitted by temperament for the role of angry avenger. By building the wacky "plot" around the idea of the old pros (Casey, Hayes, etc.) teaching and assisting Jack, Wayans was cleverly able to get around the problem of how he came across on-screen--as intelligent and appealing, but not as a badass. In Shame, Wayans gives his private-eye hero, Andre Shame (the name is clearly meant to call up both Shaft and Shane), a nice-guy persona closer to that of Billy Dee Williams than Richard Roundtree--although Wayans is more human than Williams, less a professional smoothie. There's a bit of plot about Shame's search for an evil drug lord (Andrew Divoff), but Wayans pays it no more attention than he has to (nor does the audience). He doesn't have the physical charge that a true action hero brings to a shoot-out or a fight, and he seems to know it, because there aren't, by comparison to other action films, so many of either. What fights take place are on a rather small scale, with no James Cameron pyrotechnics (it should be noted that this, in itself, does not make them a whit less exciting). Wayans' real interest in Shame is romance, and this turns out to be for the best. Wayans gives Shame two lovelies competing for him, one a stunning femme fatale (Salli Richardson of Posse), the other his spunky, devoted sidekick Peaches (Jada Pinkett of Menace II Society and Jason's Lyric), Tess Trueheart as a trash-talking homegirl. There's never any question where Shame's loyalties ought to lie, but the plot works toward getting him to realize it. As with Sucka, the word "plot" must be used loosely--Wayans is (rightly) quite willing to stop the movie cold for scenes of extended clowning, especially those involving Peaches' gay roommate, a squealing nelly played so affectionately by Corwin Hawkins (who has died since the film was completed) that it's hard to take much offense at the stereotype. In the first half of the film, Shame is a slovenly mess who drives an old bomber, but at a turning point in the plot, he shaves his head to an elegant dome, dons shades and a snazzy suit and hits the road in a fancy ride. The audience, more or less indifferent when the bad guys get theirs, goes nuts at this point. Films like A Low Down Dirty Shame are triumphs of, in the most literal sense of the phrase, style over substance.