On November 8th, 1991, Director Kevin Hooks and writers Pam Gibson and Nelson George gave us the movie “Strictly Business”. In a year where urban movies such as “New Jack City”, “Boyz n the Hood” and “Jungle Fever” gave us a realistic, unapologetic look into the rough and drama-filled realities of urban life in the ’90s, “Strictly Business” was a comedy which took us uptown to showcase a serious issue with a happy ending.
Harlem is, arguably, the most important neighborhood historically for people of color. It was home to a renaissance chronicled in history books and gave birth to landmarks such as Strivers Row, The Cotton Club and, of course, The Apollo Theater. In the ’90s, Harlem was in the beginning phases of gentrification, still trying to recover, like other major cities, from the crack epidemic of the ’80s. Hip-hop was starting to take hold as a mainstream form of music and New Jack Swing was in full effect thanks to Harlem’s own, Teddy Riley. Brooklyn wasn’t enjoying the mainstream status it has today and Harlem was still Black and Brown and a place that tour buses never ventured to and “others” avoided. This made it the perfect setting for “Strictly Business”.
The premise of the movie was pretty basic. An educated Black executive is trying to rise up the corporate ladder, another Black man is trying to rise up out of the hood and enter corporate America and others are keeping them down. Simple at face value, but underneath, it discussed more deeply seeded issues rooted in the lives of men of color.
Waymon, played by Joseph C. Phllips, is a real estate executive who is quickly rising to the top but suffers a potential career-killing experience when his big deal is submarined by a jealous, racist white colleague. Adding drama to his life are Bobby (Tommy Davidson), Diedre (Ann-Marine Johnson) and Natalie (Halle Berry), all contributing to struggles faced in Black life. Trying to make it in corporate America, being stabbed in the back by racism, complicated relationship issues, the “Oreo” label, the “Jack and Jill”/bougie characterization, trying to “keep it real” and the “crabs in a barrel” syndrome, all consistently plaguing people of color.
Many probably breeze over the significance of “Strictly Business”, which is not the fact that it gave America it’s first official glimpse of Halle Berry on the silver screen (playing Vivian in “Jungle Fever” didn’t count). No. It’s the fact that the movie depicted some of the real life obstacles facing Black men in this country. You might shake your head and/or laugh at that statement, but it’s completely valid, especially for men of color who grew up in New York City.
In the city you had many divisions. The borough you repped, school you attended and neighborhood you grew up in. Those who didn’t come up in the city during that time can’t relate because of the way New York is now. Waymon was succeeding in corporate America, but he wasn’t comfortable around everyday Black people or being in the Black Mecca of Harlem.
Bobby had the drive, ambition and hustle to succeed but he didn’t know how to apply it to corporate life. Despite their differences, they needed each other to take the next step in their journey. Bobby needed Waymon to teach him how to make it in corporate America, how to dress for the job you want not the job you have and how to apply his street skills in the boardroom. Waymon needed Bobby to meet Natalie, save his real estate deal and, most importantly, he needed him for a personal awakening.
“You are straight up whiter than the whitest white man.” said Bobby.
Can’t get anymore “real” than that.
(Photo Credit: Better Angels Now)
“Strictly Business” contributed to the Black entertainment explosion of the ’80s and ’90s, where Black actors were consistently employed in Black movies and TV shows, and they all opened doors for the next ones to come through. Eddie Murphy did it in the ’80s for people like Chris Rock, and Spike Lee was doing it in the ’90s for people like Samuel L. Jackson. In addition to the aforementioned cast, actors like James McDaniel, Kim Coles and Joe Torry also appeared in the film. Some, like Jackson (playing mail room manager Monroe), transformed minor roles into long and successful careers.
I know you’re probably asking yourself if “Strictly Business” was really all that. Wasn’t it just an entertaining movie that happens to be 25 years old? If you don’t truly understand the Black experience, you’re probably saying these things. But for many of us, those questions are meaningless because the movie represents the struggle of acceptance, a battle brothers face constantly.
Acceptance is a struggle all men of color face at some point. Skin color, experience, speech, etiquette and attitude all come into play in our lives, especially in the work place. The inner city kids goes to private school and his friends from the neighborhood make fun of him, or the Black guy is accused of acting “white” because his speech is proper. Trying to keep it real when outside of his environment or trying too hard to fit in when he’s never been exposed to urban culture. It’s a reality that’s always existed, and Waymon and Bobby are manifestations of this reality facing Black men.
(Photo Credit: Ravepad)
While the struggle is rough, the outcome, particularly in the movie, can be extremely rewarding and satisfying. Waymon becomes a partner, Bobby becomes his trainee and Waymon gets his dream girl, Natalie. This success was not just happening in the movies either, as we witnessed a new wave of Black success emerge in the ’90s through the power of urban culture. Names like Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell (who also produced “Strictly Business”), John Singleton and Kevin Liles, founded and successfully ran multi-million dollar businesses that set the table for people like Diddy and Jay Z.
On the surface, “Strictly Business” entertained us. We laughed when Bobby was clowning with Diedre and Millicent (Kim Coles), and while men went crazy when Natalie appeared on the screen in slo-mo, Black women ran to the hairdresser to get the “Halle Berry”, setting off an entire hairstyle craze through one movie.
(Photo Credit: Pinterest)
It’s ironic that the movie celebrates its 25th anniversary on the day when a real estate tycoon will be learning the fate of his Presidential campaign; hopefully all of the Waymons, Bobbys and Halloran brothers across the Nation wake up and head to the polls so that more Waymons and Bobbys can flourish in the future.
So while “Strictly Business” gave us some laughs, great music (“You Called And Told Me” by Jeff Redd is mandatory two-stepping music at every party) and a new hairstyle, the movie really was another part of a movement that was starting to catch fire on the silver screen, and that was showcasing the realities of Black urban life.