Will Packer (writer/director of 2017’s Girl Trip) kicks off 2019 with a remake of Mel Gibson’s What Women Want (2000) starring Taraji P. Henson (Empire; Baby Boy). Though casting a black woman who proclaims her racial and gender status towards the end of the film, Henson is the latest example of colorblind casting. By colorblind casting I speak specifically to black people hired to specifically to fulfill diversity aesthetics negated by a role written without regard for the black experience.
Ali, who alludes to the late Muhammad Ali, a reference supported by a juxtaposition between Henson and a photograph of Ali standing over his defeated opponent in the background, is a workholic who is vastly under appreciated in a male-dominated workplace. When she is overlooked for a promotion, she becomes determined to sign the biggest client to prove her worth.
I’ll spare you what comes next because we have all seen it before. Girl messes up, but makes a big comeback where her relationships are stronger than they were before, and of course she gets the guy. Not a guy, but the guy.
The film appears to deviate from the norm in seeming to depict black disenfranchisement in its closing moments. The film however, actualizes what the global system of white supremacy hopes to make of black people.
Upon announcing her plans to open her own business, Ali also reveals that her first two hires are white men. This is precisely what white hegemony hopes to make of the black person. In this moment Ali is not “the hope and dream of the enslaved,” but the hope and dream of the master. Ali personifies the slave that can be granted freedom because in freedom all she’ll do is recreate her oppression.
So while this recreation of the Mel Gibson “classic” appears an apology to those targeted by his racist language, the film performs within racist expectations.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the film’s portrayal of black vodou or witchcraft. The psychic, played by the one and only Erykah Badu, who is reminiscent of Mozell from Eve’s Bayou, pokes fun of Haitian Voudon— a praxis the western gaze labels, weird and unsafe.
This depiction alone illustrates what white people want—for the oppressed to see themselves as weird, strange, and even dangerous.
The film offers a similar superficiality with regards to black love. Though What Men Want appears to show black love, Ali’s lusting after a young white neighbor who eventually turns her off with his Christian Grey preferences, shines a whole new light on her union with the tall, dark, and handsome black man she stands beside once the credits rolls. Specifically, this union depicted in the film is one of a woman meeting a good man who happens to be black not a powerful portrait of black love.
In closing, the film is a contemporary manifestation of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Ali, a black woman, is the shrew tamed by the demands of western culture— an act solidified by Ali’s attachment to white bodies and westernized ideas of success and conventionality by the film’s end. Specifically, the film suggests that the black female shrew is “tamed” by westernized men.
Thus, what white people want is immortal plantation politics and a woman black in body but lily white in ambition.