By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act May 10, 2013 at 12:03PM
Blink and you'll miss it. Amid the noise dismissing Tina Gordon Chism's Peeples as another broad, formulaic comedy akin to a black version of Meet the Parents, you might be tempted to gloss over this film in favor of its bigger-budgeted competition. Admittedly, I too raised an eyebrow at the not-so-enticing trailer. But ultimately Peeples offers lots of laughs, some genuine truths about relationships and a take on black family that has been missing from Hollywood fare for far too long.
Craig Robinson stars as Wade Walker, a warm and fuzzy kids' entertainer longing to propose to his live-in girlfriend Grace Peeples (aptly played by Kerry Washington), a U.N. attorney who's way out of his league. When Grace heads to a family getaway in Sag Harbor without him, Wade sees it as a golden opportunity to show up unannounced and pop the question among her adoring kin. But he first has to win the Peeples' approval, which proves daunting as he faces off with Grace's father (David Alan Grier), a federal judge who takes an immediate disliking to him. Naturally, wackiness ensues.
To be sure, this is a rambunctious four-quadrant comedy with all the trappings. So expect the gags, the awkward setups, and the serious dramatic climax followed by a happy-sappy ending, because that's what the genre is about. But what shines in Peeples is its stellar cast and the space that Chism gives them to play and improvise, making gut-busting moments of potentially predictable scenes. In case you've forgotten about Grier's comic ability during his dramatic stint on Broadway, he reminds us of his skills here as no-nonsense Judge Peeples, while consummate pros S. Epatha Merkerson as Grace's former soul diva mom, Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) and Kali Hawk (Couples Retreat) as the Peeples siblings, and scene-stealing Malcolm Barrett (Better Off Ted) as Wade's brother Chris round out the cast.
Robinson holds his own as leading man and for all concerned, the relationship between Wade and Grace is only the entry point for a story that's really about an entire family and the quirky secrets they hide. This is where Chism links the farce to reality, which makes it all the more interesting. Revelations like Grace's affinity for older men or young Simon Peeples' wacky pastimes in his bedroom are silly enough, but still plausible and relatable.
The thing to really appreciate about Peeples is its rich and genuine portrayal of the black family at its center. Chism, who got her start working on The Cosby Show before penning the scripts for Drumline and ATL, is definitely a student of the Bill Cosby approach to comedy. Not only does Peeples mimic the style of TV, but more broadly, it seeks to tell a uniquely black story within a mainstream framework. This isn't the hackneyed, artificial blackness we're used to seeing on screen. There's no Gospel proselytizing, no Kevin Hart-like shenanigans, no men in drag. But everything - from the dialogue, to the music threaded throughout the film, to the Romare Bearden and Geoffrey Holder art in the Peeples' home - is infused with black culture in a way that's authentic to us and yet accessible to all. That film icons Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles (whose brief scenes with Grier are life-giving) appear as nana and grandpa to this clan should be a hint that something special is happening here.
Tech aspects are sufficient. By all accounts, this is a solid directorial debut for Chism and I'm curious to see how it will be received. I'm even more curious to see what Chism will do with a bigger budget and more freedom from studio limitations, which she'll only get if Peeples performs well. Filmmaking is a hustle, but against the odds Chism and her team have delivered much of what audiences, particularly black audiences, have been asking for - They managed to get a studio to take a chance on an original script from a first-time black female director. They got Tyler Perry to support the film as producer while staying hands-off creatively. They got a top-notch cast, all of whom have had mainstream success. They made a broad, family-friendly comedy that manages to be genuinely funny and authentically black. And today they'll get a wide release. Truly, a little bit of magic has been achieved with Peeples and it'll be interesting, and telling, to see how audiences respond.