Rapper Ice Cube's debut as a director/ screenwriter is a big step backward in terms of the representation of African-Americans and women in film. The Player's Club features a group of up-and-coming black male actors who portray hardly anything other than rogue hustlers, abusive hip-hoppers and capricious rapists. The film's women are drawn almost exclusively as conniving objects of desire, played by actresses deprived of a chance to display their talents; they don't seem to be allowed on-screen for more than five minutes without showing off hard nipples, getting raped or spewing soliloquies of self-defeated hopelessness.
Cube's debut is an inspired exercise, at least in one way -- he's infused aspects of '70s blaxploitation films, '90s ghetto films and recent African-American "chick" flicks (as in Waiting to Exhale) into the work. While those subgenres have much to offer -- they often make sly poetry out of inner-city desperation and the struggle to succeed in the corporate and social worlds -- The Player's Club is a mess.
The film tells the story of Diana Armstrong (the attractive and diffident newcomer Lisa Raye), a young woman from inner-city L.A. who dreams of a career in broadcast journalism. She's a single mother, though, so she can't afford college. When the opportunity arises for her to accept a gig at a notorious, high-paying strip club, she bags her job selling shoes and starts her new line of work despite her moral apprehension. Diana sheds her duds at The Player's Club -- an upscale yet especially sleazy establishment owned by an unctuous shyster named Dollar Bill (Bernie Mac). Stripping, of course, sends Diana's life spiraling toward depravity. She's forced to take part in previously unthinkable acts, breaks up with her man, cat-fights with her colleagues and must deal with the fact that her cousin Ebony (Monica Calhoun) -- a fellow Player's Club stripper -- is earning a little money on the side by offering the club's customers a lot more than just eye-candy.
The sordidness of Diana's newfound world also encompasses the movie; almost every male character is a morally siphoned creation who sports firearms, degrades women constantly and can't pass up an opportunity to commit rape. In making the film, Cube clearly saw a juicy opportunity to visualize the violent tales he so often raps about -- and then couldn't stop. So, not only does he show us the sleaziness that takes place behind a strip club's dressing-room doors -- abusive managers, bickering between the girls, lesbianism used as a tool of intimidation -- he also invokes damn near every hip-hop cliche in the book: a loan shark seeking revenge, kidnappings, stylized shoot-'em-ups and even a violent, fiery explosion that inexcusably caps off the film.
Other recent films about the African-American urban experience -- Menace II Society and Set It Off, for instance -- offer no less violence than The Player's Club. But they also give us characters who understandably feel as if no other option exists to better their situations. Cube's characters are cartoons -- and their violent actions simply don't take us anywhere, don't contribute to anything like plot or pathos or character development. The violence is here for its own sake.
Sure, Cube provides us with a couple of obvious do-gooders that ultimately keep Diana in check (namely the club's sympathetic DJ and the all-too-familiar righteous college professor who takes a liking to his hard-knocks stripper student). But the all-black world he's portraying thrives on torture, bloodshed and pelvises pulsating in front of drooling, horny faces. A few nice guys aren't enough to balance it out.
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We should, in theory, be able to see Diana as a heroine. After all, her sacrifice is one that many ambitious young women -- both white and black -- must make in order to escape desperate circumstances. Diana, though, is constantly degraded in this film. She's the victim of numerous attempted sexual assaults, she lacks the will to resist uncomfortable sexual come-ons, and when she vents physical anger at characters who've done her wrong, she's ruthless to the point of brutality. Inexcusably, Cube constantly photographs his star partially nude -- even when she's not stripping.
The lack of respect Cube offers his female characters certainly doesn't end with Diana -- after all, this is a movie about stripping. When a major character is the victim of a brutal rape, the filmmaker reaches a level of downright exploitation. Thankfully, Cube handles the actual rape off-camera, but its aftermath -- featuring the victim lying bloodied, naked and vulnerable on a bed -- is shockingly presented as a relief (a sexual relief) to a series of carefully choreographed shots meant for rueful, teasing avoidance.
Eventually, Cube gives Diana redemption, and it's implied that she will, in fact, realize her dream. But he's sanctimonious about the whole thing. It's impossible to buy into this righteousness and hope after experiencing a world that never, for a moment, offers either of those things. We leave The Player's Club not feeling uplifted by a happy ending, but sickened by the playful ways its writer/director shows inexcusable acts.
The Player's Club.
Directed by Ice Cube. With Ice Cube, Lisa Raye and Bernie Mac.