Robinson stars as Wade Walker, a children’s motivational singer (a booming industry, that) who fondles the wedding ring in his pocket as he struggles with how to pop the question to girlfriend Grace (Kerry Washington, luminous). Unfortunately, Walker still knows little of her frequent sojourns upstate to see family, excursions where Walker is apparently not invited. Though they share an improbable New York City apartment – with their own elevator! – Walker feels like it’s a classist slight against him, given that the apartment is filled with snapshots of what Walker refers to as “the Chocolate Kennedys.” Empowered by his brother Chris (Malcolm Barrett), Wade makes an impromptu visit to upper-crust Sag Harbor, where a legion of sweater-clad 1%-ers celebrate Moby Dick Day while swaddled in Cosby sweaters.
On the other hand, Washington doesn’t get much to do other than appear beautiful, her Grace quickly fading into the background, playing the straight woman to an escalating series of hijinks. Secrets are revealed about a busier-than-expected love life before meeting Wade, but it’s quickly brushed away as she becomes the least-important portion of the story. She’s an object to be won by Wade, and as her personality fades into the wallpaper, it begins to stick out that she’s spent a year hiding Wade from her folks. Brushed off by the core story, this ends up being her defining trait – why should Wade feel the need to be with this girl? Robinson brings a bearish softness to his imposing frame, and his innate likability just makes his pairing with the physically-dissimilar Washington even crueler. The class difference between the two of them would be more pronounced, perhaps, if it weren’t for that apartment elevator back in the city. But building a romantic bond between the two of them and the audience is complicated by Chism’s devotion to the joke; by the time wise-cracking Chris arrives to Sag Harbor unannounced, the story’s been huffing and puffing to get more mileage from this family clash.
The sense of history and legacies that is reflected in Chism’s film makes one wish this had been a drama instead. Kudos are deserved by the casting of luminaries Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll as the Peeples grandparents, not only giving a deeper suggestion to these roots of exceptionalism, but also revealing the Peeples’ potential place in cinematic history: respectful depictions of upper-class black families are exceedingly rare in mainstream cinema, and entirely necessary given we’ve raised a P.C. generation on the notion that tokenism equals representation. There’s an equal level of affection given towards Daphne’s past as a one-time disco superstar. When Wade boasts of remembering her record, it’s not simple fandom, but the explicit acknowledgement that her work was integral to his musical background. At times, “Peeples” says so much about communities and foundations built and enhanced by future generations that you wish it also didn’t bend over backwards to present gags about nudist beaches and threesomes, not to mention repeated plays of Wade’s kids-centric motivational song. The cast alone deserves to be recognized more than the notes of “Speak It, Don’t Leak It.” And yet, here I am, humming it. [C+]