Look who’s boss 

“There’s been a perception in Hollywood,” says Two Can Play That Game writer-director Mark Brown, “that an African-American woman just can’t carry a movie, and I wanted to get back to the Pam Grier days. Ultimately, I wanted Shanté Smith to be like a black James Bond, to be strong and to be funny.”

What the co-writer of How To Be a Player wanted most of all was to present the games lovers play from a woman’s perspective. In actress Vivica A. Fox, who embodies a particular blend of intelligence and sass, he found his Shanté. As the two interacted in Los Angeles, the making of this romantic comedy sometimes resembled the battle of the sexes onscreen. Yet both first-time director Brown and veteran performer Fox happily acknowledge that it was the mix of their distinctive outlooks which resulted in a film that’s both feminist and inclusive.

Brown had written the film’s central character with Fox (Soul Food, Set It Off, Why Do Fools Fall In Love?) in mind. But she was initially turned off by an early script draft, which had advertising executive Shanté and lawyer boyfriend Keith (Morris Chestnut) engaging in some explicit sex in his office during business hours. That didn’t fit her idea of the behavior of successful professionals. Brown, who wanted to make a smart relationship comedy that his mother could see, soon concurred.

“I made sure this time that people could see us as professionals,” explains Fox, “and I think that face hasn’t really been seen. You’ve got a lot of successful people doing a lot of wonderful things and I just wanted more positive images, especially for our men. I’m so tired of them (depicted onscreen) killing and being negative to one another. Seen it, done it. Now, what else is going on? If someone doesn’t take the step to show it to you guys, you’ll never know — you’d just see us one way. So I fought for a lot of things, and I’m glad that I did. And that I had the power to fight.”

Interestingly enough, while the final film contains no nudity, it still received an R rating for its “sexual dialogue,” none of which reaches the regularly raunchy level of the HBO series “Sex and the City.” In fact, Fox says “Sex” was a major influence on Two Can Play That Game, particularly in the way Shanté speaks frankly with her trio of close girlfriends.

“It made America a lot more comfortable with a woman’s sexuality,” she asserts, “that they’re getting their groove on and talking about it.”

Shanté’s duality — she could rule a boardroom during the day and handle her errant lover at night — was inspired by the contradictions most successful women must embrace, observes Brown, who drew on the experiences of an ex-girlfriend, a high-powered executive.

“I noticed a dynamic that she had to go through,” he explains, “where between certain hours of the day she would be very professional and quite often she would be the only black person in the room. But in the evening, you probably wouldn’t even recognize her, because she would sling the slang and probably be in the hood somewhere. For an African-American woman to really be successful, they really have to be so much better than their male counterparts to get the same position. I wanted to bring some of that to light.”

What’s refreshing about Two Can Play This Game isn’t just this female perspective, or even the central story line: Shanté encounters Keith out with another woman and quickly implements a ruthless 10-day plan to put him back on track (which makes the film akin to a woman’s take on The Taming of the Shrew). It’s the way the story is told, with Shanté speaking directly to the camera about her complex machinations, which she approaches with the intensity of a general on the battlefield. Breaking the fourth wall doesn’t always work, and Fox initially fought against it. But it was remembering the way Matthew Broderick made the audience both his confidant and ally in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) that convinced her.

With no actor to react to what you’re saying, she explains, “you have to totally trust your instincts. What you do when you’re talking to the camera, you just pretend you’re talking to your girlfriends. Bring them into the experience of what Shanté is going through. After I made that connection of talking to it as a friend, it made it a lot easier.”

“I knew it would work,” adds Brown, “because if you go to the movies in the proverbial hood, African-Americans traditionally shout at the screen and I really wanted to encourage that. I really wanted it to feel interactive; I wanted the audience to feel as though they were a part of the movie as opposed to spectators.”

Yet, what both Brown and Fox desire is for Two Can Play That Game to cross over to a broad, multicultural audience. That’s possible, they enthuse, because of the universality of the dating experience, and the hard lesson Shanté eventually learns.

“After all the games have been played,” concludes Brown, “you really just can’t control love.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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