There’s a joke in the middle of Chris Rock’s Top Five that almost scuttled the movie for me. I say this as a fan of both Top Five and of Chris Rock: His press tour for Top Five has been a refreshing injection of candor and common sense into the absurd theater of American racial politics. The movie itself is a stylistic breakthrough for him—a work he wrote, directed, and starred in that populates an entire world with a multiplicity of black men who are diverse, interesting, and, above all, funny. But there’s a crucial scene involving a gay character—or at least a guy on the low—that’s cheap and almost ruins an otherwise good movie.
The scene—and here’s where you might want to stop reading and circle back if you haven’t seen Top Five yet—occurs when Andre Allen (Chris Rock) and New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) run into her boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm) in a hotel lobby during their marathon hangout. It’s the first introduction in the film of a main white character, and you can feel the temperature change: Andre calls him “white Brad,” because he assumed that Chelsea’s boyfriend would be black. But instead of getting into the complexities of interracial dating, the script veers into another direction when Chelsea realizes that her boyfriend was at the hotel for a clandestine rendezvous with his friend, another man.
Afterward Chelsea has a meltdown and eventually she tells Andre that she had had her suspicions, because Brad loved anal stimulation so much. In flashbacks, we see that he liked it in the bedroom, in airplane bathrooms, and at parties. Finally, when Brad slights her in front of their friends, she exacts revenge by putting a tampon drenched with hot sauce into his ass later that night. It’s a jolting five-minute joke that sees a horrified Chelsea giving this man the pleasure he so desires—and then the pain he deserves. The gay guy is the closest thing to a villain there is in the film, and sticking something up his ass comes off as righteous comeuppance.
Last week on NPR’s Fresh Air, host Terry Gross pressed Chris Rock on the scene: “I was just wondering about that scene because there was something about it that was troubling me. So I just thought I’d tell you what it was so we can talk about it a little.” Theater director Anna D. Shapiro saw an early draft of Top Five and made a similar complaint to Rock: “Can you take out the stupid jokes about gay people?” No one wants to be prescriptive about comedy, but they aren’t able to pinpoint exactly what it is that bothers them.
This is not about political correctness, but rather it’s an argument about why the scene is at odds with the rest of the movie. Throughout Top Five, Andre is dogged by random voices on the street hailing him as “Hammy!”—a constant reminder that he is forever known to the public as “Hammy the Bear,” one-half of a buddy cop franchise he starred in with Luis Guzmán. Audiences and critics don’t see him as a serious actor or even a serious comic, but rather as just a black man in a bear suit. A caricature. The butt of a joke. Top Five is a story about Andre’s attempt to recover his dignity in an inherently dehumanizing industry. (And to this end, it succeeds where 30 Rock sometimes fumbled with Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan character.) The point of the film is about finding your voice when everyone is telling you how you’re supposed to be.
What I mean to say is that the gay joke is at odds with Rock’s own humanist sensibilities. He told Frank Rich that he didn’t want to reproduce “swishing” stereotypes of gay men in his comedy, but the three-dimensionality he so generously gives to black men is denied to the gay men in the story. Sure, Anders Holm doesn’t play “swishy,” but his character is shamed for wanting anal sex. It also somewhat uncomfortably plays into representations of gay men, in which most of the ones portrayed in media are white.
During the NPR interview, Rock’s defense to Terry Gross’s questions is that he has never bashed gay men in his stand-up. He also repeats Jon Stewart’s familiar refrain that he’s just a comedian. “I’m not a politician. I’m not a thinker. I’m a comedian,” he says. But that’s a little disingenuous, because his humor is often self-reflective. “I like grown people. I like people that have had life punch them in the face.” Top Five is filled with people who have had some of the shit kicked out of them, and they become interesting, complex characters through that process. I get the sense that if Rock had treated this one character the way he treated everyone else, we would have gotten an even funnier, more astute, more richly textured movie. And when I think about that, I get a little bummed out.