My wife and I saw Magic Mike XXL this week, and we both enjoyed it tremendously; Devin's review aptly reflects the resounding humanity of the film. To coincide with the film's release and the celebration of the therapeutic power of pelvic pulsations, I wanted to do a quick rundown of another male stripper movie that my wife and I shared: Black Magic Mike.
That isn't just a backhanded joke title on my part either. In the very beginning of Chocolate City, one of the main characters explicitly declares the mission statement of the movie to a club full of excited women: "Yall seen Magic Mike right? Now, we're gonna add a little chocolate". Unfortunately, Chocolate City never quite reaches the allegorical depths of the original Magic Mike nor the contagiously euphoric highs of XXL. Nonetheless, the film keeps its tale of a good kid struggling to do the right thing streamlined and simple, with plenty shots of gyrating muscular man-meat interspersed throughout.
The film stars Robert Ri'chard as Michael McCoy, a young college student barely making ends meet for himself and his family by flipping burgers. His brother Chris, played by actor/comedian DeRay Davis, is emotionally supportive of Chris, but is otherwise a lazy bum who provides little else for his brother and their mom played by Vivica A. Fox. One night during a chance encounter in a men's bathroom, Michael meets Princeton, a night club manager played by the action star Michael Jai White. Though at first leery of the stranger's proposition, Michael later takes him up on his offer out of desperation when his mother's hours at both her jobs get drastically cut. As it turns out, Michael has a natural talent for turning the ladies on, and soon becomes the star attraction of the club as Sexy Chocolate. All good things can't last forever though, and the deeper Michael gets into the stripper life, the harder he finds it to stay out of trouble and keep focus on what's truly important.
Everything from the dialogue to the set design to the cinematography gives the film a very made-for-TV aesthetic (which isn't surprising since about a month after I ordered the movie on VOD it premiered on BET). However, that's not necessarily an insult. In context, this is one of the more well-produced independent "Black Movies" of its ilk. The film is directed by Jean-Claude La Marre, who has an impressively extensive list of acting, writing, producing, and directing credits. His most prevalent director work is his series of Pastor Jones films, where he plays the titular pastor who helps community members in a variety of moral and ethical dilemmas. He actually reprises his pastor role in a cameo of sorts for Chocolate City, which makes for a weird bit of Black Cinematic Universe crossover when you think about it. Suffice to say, this movie is just a peak into a whole entire sub genre of independent black cinema out there, and Chocolate City is but one of many targeted specifically to that demographic.
As far as the actual strippers go? Well, there's nothing as technically elaborate as Channing Tatum's 21st century Gene Kelly routines, but the dancers go pretty hard regardless. Darrin Dewitt Henson, who plays one of the dancers, also serves as one of the main choreographers (he has an extensive choreography history with major pop stars, but you might recognize him most for his famous Darren's Dance Groove instructional videos). It's strange that I only remember Robert Ri'chard form his days younger days in the kids puppet sitcom Cousin Skeeter, cuz he has serious moves and a terrific body to go with his clean cut good looks. Other hunks like the famous model Tyson Beckford get good screen time. Of note, Chocolate City makes an earnest attempt to up the Magic Mike ante by not just using the song "Pony", but having the recording artist Ginuwine himself appear as a dancer to his own music. I give particular props to the performer Michael "Bolo" Bolwaire, a beast of a man who moves with the agility of an Olympic gymnast. Unfortunately, the mighty MJW doesn't drop trou along with the rest of the cast, but I don't know if most mortal women (and my man-crushing self) could handle that much chocolate thunder, so maybe it's for the best.
As opposed to the sharp cinematography and direction of Steven Soderbergh and his disciple Gregory Jacobs, Chocolate City goes for more intimately hazy and lingering POV shots. In one sense it reminds me of something like a high def smartphone tablet recording of a concert, but nothing so cheap and unfocused. Rather, it accurately reflects the sensation of being in the front row of a drunken and rowdy live show, your gaze fixated on the phenomenal spectacle displayed before you on stage.
Chocolate City cant match the cinematic aspirations of the films with which it competes, but I was glad I watched it. More than anything, I hope that this glimpse into independent black films will spark enough curiosity to go deeper down the rabbit hole. Just from researching the people involved in this film, I found YouTube trailers for several interesting looking films targeted towards me that I might not have ever heard of otherwise. And more than just celebrating diversity, this speaks to my broader objective in writing about film: to encourage people to watch more movies of all kinds.
To finalize this piece, I asked my wife about what her overall feelings about the Magic Mike movies and Chocolate City were. To summarize:
"I liked Robert in the movie, but I liked the Magic Mike movies more. The guys in Magic Mike look like they still had some innocence to them. They were kinda sad and... I kinda wanted to give them a hug them.
I won't like you just because you look good."