Fifteen years ago today, we were blessed with one of the greatest movies in history: Pootie Tang. Unfortunately, like many great things, it was ahead of its time and, as a result, widely shat on.
Pootie Tang is the ultimate crime-fighting superhero: He's irresistible to women, speaks his own, unintelligible language, and is a role model to neighborhood kids, whom he attempts to protect from Dick Lecter, a corporate villain out to corrupt youth with junk food, alcohol, and tobacco. Our hero is chronicled from early childhood to his eventual battles against Lecter and corporate America, who steal his magic belt and warp his image to sell dangerous products to his community. After some serious soul searching and a hilarious stint on a farm, Pootie regains his power and defeats Corporate America once and for all. The film parodies several subgenres of blaxploitation films, from crime (Foxy Brown) and action (Three the Hard Way) to western (Take A Hard Ride), comedy (Uptown Saturday Night) and musical (Sparkle).
The 2001 film was written and directed by Louis C.K. and adapted from a comedy sketch on The Chris Rock Show; it boasts a cast of comedic geniuses including Rock, Wanda Sykes, Jennifer Coolidge, and Dave Attell. Though it had all the makings of a hit, C.K. calls the film “a very huge mistake.” According to Cinema Blend, the comedian was a “nobody” while making Pootie Tang, and Paramount studios hired editors to chop up the final cut without considering his feedback.
I can’t say they took my movie away. They hired me to work on a movie that I happened to have written, and that I care a lot about. But I got thrown off because I wasn’t doing what they wanted. That’s the way it works … I had made something that was pretty unique, and nobody knew how to handle it.
Like the film's protagonist, C.K.’s vision was bastardized for a corporate agenda. C.K. lamented his bad review from Roger Ebert, saying, “I grew up watching Roger Ebert doing movie criticism, and he said, 'I can’t even say this is a bad movie, because it’s not even complete. It’s incomplete. It’s not even a movie.' It was the worst."
But honestly? Forget Roger Ebert. Some of his most-hated films include Spice World, Flashdance, and The Usual Suspects. C.K. hit the nail on the head when he said that Pootie Tang was too unique to handle. The film relies on humor and references that most white Hollywood gatekeepers wouldn’t recognize if it attacked them in a gorilla suit. In an article on The Wrap, writer Tim Molloy calls the film “a comedy about a belt-wielding ghetto folk hero.” Yikes. At the time of its release, one person who did enjoy Pootie Tang was New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell. He praised its nod to blaxploitation films, parody of black slang, and overall ”splendidness” and “fun."
Over time, Pootie Tang gained a cult following. Some who like the movie say it’s because it achieves a particular kind of “dumbness.” In his book A Year at the Movies, Kevin Murphy writes, “Pootie Tang crosses all cultural barriers to become the dumbest movie I've seen in an entire generation. But it is also funny as hell … Pootie Tang strives for the dumbness it achieves, a feat few films can do … this is a good kind of dumb. Like mooning. Like a cat falling off a table.”
But it’s important to note that Pootie Tang shouldn’t be dismissed as dumb as much as it should be recognized for being ahead of its time, and thrust into the hands of unprepared and out-of-touch viewers. Pootie Tang is written as commentary on the American marketability of black culture: He's a rapper and singer, not a political dissident. He fights the nebulous "evil corporation" instead of the white power structure. To highlight America's fascination with appropriating black language, Pootie is a guy who is literally too cool for words. The movie was doomed to be something mainstream audiences unfamiliar with blaxploitation films just “didn’t get,” and subsequently damned. (I’m sure viewers also felt "some type of way" about all of Pootie Tang’s villains being white and one-dimensional. I, for one, am not mad at those tables turning.)
If you look at 2001’s most popular movie releases, they include the first installments of the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Fast and the Furious franchises. Other hits like Black Hawk Down, A Beautiful Mind, and Donnie Darko illustrated an American audience that valued dark narratives that took themselves seriously. The year’s comedic hits were Zoolander, Not Another Teen Movie, and Legally Blonde—although categorically similar in being over-the-top, these comedies were a lot safer than Pootie Tang. It’s easy and trite to make fun of hot people and teens; it’s easy to build on these tropes because everyone knows them. But satirizing black pop culture for a mainstream white audience? Mixed results.
America wasn’t ready—but we are now. We (thankfully) live in the woke-or-bust era, when complicating identity politics rules supreme, and if you’re not down, you’re out. Pootie Tang, who has his own incomprehensible yet inherently cool language, would be an especially poignant hero in the context of internet virality and the proliferation of black vernacular into mainstream slang. Today's viewers who grew up with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter wouldn't condemn a movie for black cultural references they don't understand—we know that mythologies of what's "mainstream" and “accessible” are coded racist bullshit.
And most of all, today's viewers are ready for a movie that’s simply fun. Our cultural inability to let things go has doomed us to shitty sequels, reboots, and re-imaginings none of us asked for—why is there a My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2? Live-action remakes of animated movies and animated remakes of live-action movies? Three different men playing Spider-Man? In a world of making things crappier, we need to let genius live, even if not everyone “gets it.” Pootie Tang was from the future, and people are either down with it, or they’re not.
People who hate Pootie Tang are probably also the type to let a queef ruin sex—they just hate fun. To them, I say: sa da tay. Pootie Tang may have come out fifteen years ago, but now more than ever, the world is ready for irreverent comedy that's explicitly pro-black and anti-corporate greed.