Chris Rock's Top Five doesn't have any real villains, per se, but in it is one truly awful character. The film has been very well reviewed, so perhaps this depiction is hitting me harder than most people. I do think, though, it is worth examining.
The main source of conflict is Rock's actor character Andre versus the public. Andre no longer wants to be known for the lowbrow comedies that made him famous, despite his audience's demand for that kind of material. He's also struggling with sobriety. The movie is structured around an interview conducted by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). She is occasionally deceptive and challenging, but again, not an antagonist. Gabrielle Union plays Rock's fiancé Erica Long, who is the vapid and materialistic star of some Real Housewives franchise. She's not exactly a bad guy, either, though—she's got about five minutes of screen time in total and she's just kind of selfish.
The closest that the movie comes to an actual villain is Chelsea's boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm), who breaks her heart by cheating on her with a man. He is further vilified for his sexuality. But, you know, humorously.
During Chelsea's marathon interview with Andre, they run into Brad in a hotel lobby. The friend he is with attempts to duck out of sight. Soon enough, it is clear that we have yet another deceitful, guy on the DL on the screen in front of us (here's a twist, though: Brad's white). Andre asks if she ever suspected that Brad might be into guys and she tells the story of their foray into anal play.
A series of flashbacks shows us Brad and Chelsea in bed one day. He asks her to stick a finger in his ass while they fuck. She does it. That finger in his ass makes her far more uncomfortable than it does him. He loves it. He needs it. We find out that he wanted her up his butt all the time: in an airplane bathroom, during a friend's party. We see things escalate to the point where, upon deciding to have sex, Brad strips down and gets the bed on all fours, his pasty white ass pointed upward longingly. The visual reiterates the joke—it's hilarious that this guy likes putting things in his ass.
Chelsea snaps and exacts revenge. Why she should have to retaliate at all remains unsaid—you're just supposed to get it. Of course this is worthy of counteraction. She takes a tampon, puts hot sauce on it, and shoves it up Brad's ass.
When the action flashes to the present, Andre gets no fewer than three residual jokes out of Chelsea's deed. Chelsea seems amazed that Brad didn't break up with her then, but Andre points out, "What's he gonna tell people, 'My girlfriend shoved a red hot chili pepper up my ass?'" Discussing further, Andre allows that Brad may have acted in a less-than-ideal manner, but "he wasn't burn-his-ass wrong." Finally, he refers to Chelsea as, "Miss I-Use-My-Boyfriend's-Ass-as-a-Hand-Puppet."
I know these are all jokes. I know that I'm supposed to be able to take a joke if I can take a dick. But this depiction of gay sexuality struck me as being straight out of 1985. Why would Rock go out of his way to write a gay character that he then ridicules for enjoying what many gay people do, and then vilify for being deceptive? Jokes like that and the disdain fueling them are part of the reason why gay people don't feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality and end up lying to the people that they say they love.
The Brad character sticks out in a movie that is far from perfect, but that really does seem invested in on-screen representation. Rock presents a range of black people in his film with a casualness that never telegraphs how socially conscious and bold within Hollywood's confines it is. Rock, especially in the movie's best scene that finds Andrew returning home to Harlem to visit his family and lifelong friends, just shows a bunch of black people talking about their culture and their lives. He presents a range of black experiences in a matter of fact way, which is at once beautiful, hilarious, and crucial.
But Brad is such a needless character, which makes him all that more disappointing. Rock elected to use the character at the expense of gay sexuality.
I feel your pain — but I've never thought about any joke or anything like that deeply. ... I mean, you're Terry Gross. It's your job to analyze this and fight the good fight, you know, but you know, I probably, I might be the only black comedian in the country who hasn't gay-bashed. Ever.
... No comedian wants to have to analyze and defend something. It's like, you thought something was funny; you wrote it down; you acted it out; you talked to people. You know? It works or it doesn't work. I'm not a politician; I'm not a thinker. I'm a comedian. It's just like, "OK. Tell jokes." Some work, some don't. There's no bigger indictment that the joke's not working than to not laugh. Nothing is a bigger indictment. Nothing is a bigger, screamingly, "This is wrong!" than the sound of non-laughter.
There's a lot to pick through here, but his assessment of audience indictment is correct. You can't argue with results. The joke killed. The audience at my screening went crazy during the exploration of Brad's burgeoning bottom side. The howling and delighted groans made the gay guy getting punished in the ass feel like the movie's centerpiece.
"I'm not a thinker," though, is an utter copout. Rock is a thinker and he's exactly the kind of thinker this embattled country needs right now, one who can call bullshit in a clear, hilarious voice. Rock is a smart, engaged dude whose art is imbued with social commentary. His recent interviews have gotten so much attention precisely because of his thinking. His take on "racial progress?" Brilliant. His first-person experience of being a black man with a modicum of power in Hollywood? Riveting. His thoughts on the absence of black women in movies? Essential.
Top Five, which Rock directed and wrote, exists to right some of the wrongs he's been identifying. I know he's a straight guy who just isn't going to care as much about gay issues as I will; I just wish he cared slightly more or avoided writing gay characters. Yeah, he's preternaturally funny. I believe that his process is virtually reflexive, that humor comes out of his pores. But there's presenting something that is self-evidently funny, and then there's pandering to the lowest common denominator. There's humor and there's inconsideration. There's exposing truths and there's defaulting to stereotypes. Rock's smart enough to know the difference.
[Image via Getty]