Cult classics are hard to dissect from a critical standpoint. What makes these movies great doesn’t necessarily make them good. That’s why, historically, our favorite campy cinema rarely received a warm welcome from critics – or the box office, for that matter. 

Pootie Tang certainly falls into that category – the Chris Rock produced, Louis C.K. written-and-directed parody of blaxploitation films from the 1970’s was a critical and commercial failure upon release. Like most cult classics, its adoration wouldn’t come until years later, with some critics declaring almost two decades after the fact that Pootie Tang was both “ahead of its time” and “one of the greatest movies in history”.

But is it any good? We haven’t seen a straight-faced blaxploitation film since the 2000 Shaft reboot starring Samuel L. Jackson, so can a parody of a long-dead genre remain watchable as it crosses its 21st birthday? The answer is – kind of.

Pootie Tang originated as a sketch from the late-night HBO program The Chris Rock Show where Louis C.K. was a staff writer. Louis adapted the sketch into an explicit screenplay which depicted Pootie as a violent vigilante, but when Paramount Pictures bought the rights, they insisted that Louis re-work the title character into a more positive hero figure.

The film’s production was marred by the clash between its writer/director and its production studio. Paramount Pictures was confused and frustrated by C.K.'s vision for Pootie Tang, eventually taking away all control from Louis and the film’s original editor before chopping up the footage into a jumbled, 81-minute mess of a movie. 

Roger Ebert described the result as “Inexplicable”, in his half-star review, saying, “You watch in puzzlement: How did this train wreck happen? How was this movie assembled out of such ill-fitting pieces? Who thought it was funny? Who thought it was finished? For that matter, was it finished?” Ebert brutally and hilariously noted that, “The press notes say it comes ‘from the comedy laboratory of HBO's Emmy Award-winning “Chris Rock Show.”’ It's like one of those lab experiments where the room smells like swamp gas and all the mice are dead.”

 

Paramount Pictures

They captured the exact moment Chris Rock realized that this was going to bomb

The film stars longtime Chris Rock collaborator Lance Crouther as Pootie Tang, a streetwise crime fighter, musician, and pottery maker born in a small town outside Gary, Indiana known as Chicago. Pootie Tang speaks only in an incomprehensible Airplane!-esque speech pattern, and he beats his enemies with his signature belt left to him by his deceased father who was killed in a steel mill accident (as in, a wild gorilla murdered him in a steel mill). 

Pootie Tang ruffles the feathers of criminals and corporations alike, drawing the ire of drug kingpin Dirty Dee and his sidekick Froggy (played by Reg E. Cathey and J.D. Williams of The Wire fame) as well as LecterCorp, an evil conglomerate bent on hooking America’s inner-city youth on their burgers, cigarettes, and whiskey. Pootie writes hit songs, he parties, and he loves the ladies – a little too much, since he eventually gets seduced and tricked into signing away his image rights to LecterCorp by their henchwoman Ireniee, played by the incomparable Jennifer Coolidge.

A dejected Pootie takes a sabbatical to the countryside on the advice of his would-be girlfriend Biggie Shorty, played by Wanda Sykes, who spends the entire movie doing an exaggerated ‘80s hip-hop dance à la Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing. This is where the film goes on a confusing Western-themed tangent when the local sheriff attempts to force Pootie into marrying his daughter before Pootie is pulled back into the fray by his best friend Trucky, played by J.B. Smoove. 

Paramount Pictures

Even Pootie's not sure how this scene made the final cut

LecterCorp begins to roll out an ad campaign targeted at black children which features Pootie lookalikes – including a very regrettably blackfaced David Cross – who use Pootie’s particular patois to push burgers, cigarettes, and malt liquor. Pootie interrupts white corporate America’s attempted appropriation of his style with a snap of his belt, and returns to his rightful place as king of the streets.

The entire film is framed as a “clip” from an interview between Pootie and legendary broadcaster Bob Costas intended to promote Pootie’s new film Sine Your Pitty On The Runny Kine. An inexplicable play-within-a-play, this framing device is only one part of the unfocused mess that can loosely be described as the plot of Pootie Tang.

The second act of Pootie Tang is basically just a montage of different tropes from hip-hop culture and the blaxploitation genre loosely held together by voiceovers from J.B. Smoove and Wanda Sykes. The detour into a sort of Western spoof is so out-of-place and not confident that it feels like an odd bit of filler in a movie that barely stretches 81 minutes to begin with.

Pootie Tang still does manage to get laughs out of its supremely stupid premises – Chris Rock playing a radio DJ who loses his mind when Pootie releases a hit song that’s just three minutes of silence while a suburban dad yells at his son to “turn that noise down!” is a moment of such dumb delight that it stands out as the most memorable scene in the film.

The satire in Pootie Tang aged surprisingly well – the movie shows a bunch of Caucasian corporate cronies desperately try to steal the style and vernacular of a black superstar in order to hawk their schlock, which is an all-too-familiar occurrence in 2022 when it’s normal to see Burger King tweet that their Whopper Meal is bussin’, no cap.

However, when you compare Pootie Tang to its contemporaries in the blaxploitation genre parodies of the 2000’s, it doesn’t hold up against the cohesiveness of a film like 2002’s Undercover Brother or the meticulous nostalgia of the 2009 masterpiece Black Dynamite. Despite whatever Pootie Tang looked like before Paramount bastardized Louis C.K.’s vision, the end result was a messy, unfocused, occasionally charming and thoroughly stupid satire that’s about as incoherent as the title character himself. It’s good for a few laughs, but this movie probably doesn’t merit a full-on revival like other cult classics such as Evil Dead 2 or House Party – both films are scheduled for reboots later this year.

In spite of its problems, Pootie Tang hasn’t really aged that poorly, unlike its writer and director’s reputation. The issue with Pootie Tang is that it just wasn’t ever that great of a film in the first place. If you liked Pootie Tang in 2001, you’ll probably still like it today. If you generally agree with the late Roger Ebert’s assessment of films, then you can follow the lead of most people in 2001 and skip this one.

Top Image: Paramount Pictures

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