Saturday 26 June 2010

Obscurity Files #12 - True Identity

Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgotten. With Russell Brand's Get Him To The Greek in cinemas now, we thought it'd be fun to look at the last time a UK comedian tried a Hollywood breakthrough. Today it's Lenny Henry in True Identity.
More after the jump...

After accidentally discovering that Leland Carver is the secret identity of the presumed dead mobster Frank Lucchino, struggling actor Miles Pope finds himself running for his life, and ends up hiding in plain sight. His best friend Duane works as a make-up artist in the film industry and gives Miles a disguise no-one would ever suspect; he turns him into a white guy. By an unfortunate coincidence Miles gets mistaken for his own potential assassin and must work with Carver's beautiful interior designer to get himself out of trouble.

Lenworth George Henry started his career on the ironically named talent show New Faces before moving to children's TV, most notably on the Saturday morning staple, Tiswas. He then moved on to star in a series of his own shows, and it's only fair to say became somewhat of a British comedy icon, if not an always fondly remembered one.

By the end of the 1980's his popularity was at an all time high, and he managed to secure a three picture deal with Disney that should have launched his career worldwide. Director Charles Lane had made a name for himself with Sidewalk Stories, a silent black and white tale of a street artist (Charles Lane also starring) who finds himself taking care of an abandoned baby. It was fairly straight faced stuff, and I honestly don't know how that could have qualified him for this culture swap comedy.

For a man born in the West Midlands Lenny does his best at an American accent, but fails. Maybe I'm just used to hearing his real voice, but it doesn't sound good to me. He had always performed sketch comedy with a variety of accents, but when he's put among actual New Yorkers it just becomes more obviously fake.

True Identity isn't offensively bad, but at times does veer towards racism towards its Italian-American characters. They're all mobsters, and fairly stereotypical ones at that, and all the other white characters seem unwilling to help Miles, leaving him to take matters into his own hands. If I was to look for a deeper meaning within the film, I could say that this is a film about black empowerment; about playing the white man at his own game.

It could also be read that a black man has no chance in this world until he starts to act white. Once his make-up has been applied, Miles' career and love life start to blossom, and he finally gets recognition for his acting. But I'm sure that's an unnecessarily in-depth reading of the film, and I'm definitely sure that they didn't put too much thought into this script; it really is just a rehashing of Tootsie's role reversal farce, but aimed at a different audience.

This is a fairly stupid story built around the hook of an African-American man passing for a white Italian mobster. The make-up is actually quite impressive, just as long as you don't look too close. I'd say that to the naked eye it might be obviously fake, but there's a scene in this movie where Miles walks along a real New York sidewalk without getting so much as a second glance.

Charles Lane also appears as Miles' diminutive best friend Duane, and it's clear he aspires to be known as an actor and not just a director. In that respect I can't help but compare him to Spike Lee, who also had a penchant for putting himself into his movies around the same time. He'd probably be glad of that comparison and he's okay in this, but there's no surprise that he's not been in much else.

There's a few pleasantly comic scenes such as Miles' attempt at passing for James Brown's brother, or the scene that features blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles as a taxi driver spouting his hatred of the white man. The love story with Kristi the designer is nothing more than generic and has obviously been tacked on to the story, serving no purpose really.

With a budget of $15 million Disney were clearly hoping that this film could perform well at the box office, but maybe it was poor timing to release it deep in the summer of 1991. The only real rival being released that weekend was the Kenneth Branagh thriller Dead Again which, it's safe to say, was going for a different audience, but the multiplexes were all still showing Terminator 2, Hot Shots, Doc Hollywood and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; all of which beat True Identity down into 11th place for the weekend.

After the abysmal performance of this film at the box office, Disney cancelled Lenny's three picture deal and he returned to the UK to start what would become his most popular TV character in Chef!. He has appeared in films since, with a small voice acting role in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but has relied on TV work as the backbone of his career.

Altogether it's a fun, cheesy, but completely ridiculous comedy. It's a shame Lenny Henry wasn't able to get any other roles off the back of this, but he was never going to be a leading man. There could have been a niche for him and this kind of film though, one which I'd say has now been filled by the Wayan's brothers with their particular brand of 'comedy'.

As an interesting side note, it is Miles Pope's ultimate ambition to play Othello on stage, a role that Lenny Henry finally got to play himself on stage in early 2009. His reviews were actually quite good.

Save from Obscurity? YES

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