A wild ride for anyone who enjoys laughing.
Marlon Wayans wasn’t looking to make another parody after poking fun at rich white girls and horror movies in the hugely popular White Chicks and Haunted House comedies. But when the erotic fantasy Fifty Shades of Grey became a pop-culture sensation, the topic — and the title — proved irresistible. “When that book became so hot, we toyed around with the name and started laughing at the idea of ‘Fifty Shades of Black,’” says Wayans.
The concept gelled quickly for Wayans and longtime collaborator Rick Alvarez. “We thought ‘How do we make this funny?’” Wayans recalls. “The key was to imagine ‘What if Christian Grey were black?’ He’s rich, but then how’d he get his money? We made him a bit shady, and then we also make Christian Black a really bad lover. Really bad.”
Pushing Boundaries for Laughs
In spoofing the excesses of the decade’s most successful erotic drama, Fifty Shades of Black draws from a timeless comedic tradition grounded in shocking sight gags and taboo-busting dialogue. “As a comedian, I never want to be the guy who goes, ‘Wait, that’s inappropriate,’” Wayans explains. “That’s why Fifty Shades of Black is rated R, hard R. I hope my teenage son and teenage daughter watch this movie and laugh, and go, ‘Oh my God, they just destroyed society. I gotta tell all my friends about it!’ because that’s what happened to me when I saw Animal House and Airplane and There’s Something About Mary. Those movies were irreverent. They were wild. They were crazy.”
Hawk envisions Fifty Shades of Black as a decidedly offbeat date movie. “Going to see this film with your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse should be really funny because you’ll realize how fortunate you are that none of the crazy things you see on screen are actually happening to you in your romantic life! I feel like Fifty Shades of Black is a wild ride for anyone who enjoys laughing. I mean, sex can be funny on its own, but it’s even funnier with Marlon Wayans.”
Wayans and his team have essentially created an alternate S&M universe crammed with jokes and crafted for maximum shock value. “There’s a lot of ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you just did that’ in this movie,” Wayans says. “I think women will really like Fifty Shades of Black because it makes fun of the corniness of guys. At the same time, we make fun of women because they dragged us men to see that damn movie on Valentine’s Day.”
Hannah and Her Unique Wardrobe
Actress Kali Hawk only had one reservation about playing Hannah Steele. “I was a little reluctant originally to play Hannah because she’s in her underwear for a lot of the movie,” Hawk says. “For the movies and TV shows I’ve done before, I’ve been mostly clothed. But here, I’m saying all this wonderful and hilarious dialogue in my underwear while I’m chained to weird things in weird places.”
Like Wayans, who spent weeks getting his body into shape for Fifty Shades of Black, Hawk became acutely aware of her character’s physicality. “Doing this movie increased my appreciation of actresses who appear in their underwear, because it really takes a lot to do all of those sex scenes,” she says. “One day I stood for six hours hooked to this rack. All these random people kept coming in and out, and I’m in my underwear just kind of chained to this thing. You don’t think about what that’s like when you see it on the screen but it takes a lot of energy to maintain your posture and keep your abs tight the whole time.” She adds with a laugh, “I expected that playing Hannah would be more of a lazy sex role but being a submissive turns out to be a real workout.”
Adhering to sadomasochism protocol, Hannah, the character, has a “safe word” that makes Christian stop the punishment if their role-playing games go too far. Hawk, the actress, came up with a safe word of her own after doing a few scenes with Wayans. “When you’re working with Marlon Wayans, you have to have a safe word because you never know what he’s gonna do,” she explains. “If you’re blindfolded and tied to a headboard when he enters the scene, you really don’t know what’s gonna happen. You need to have a lot of trust, but then also need that safe word.”
Wayans’ spontaneity on set resulted in some priceless reaction shots. “Marlon got a few actual spanks in there that I didn’t expect,” Hawk says. “He didn’t really hurt me but he certainly shocked me. Having a safe word on a movie set was certainly not something I ever thought I’d need in my acting career, but it turned out to be a really good thing.”
Here’s A Story…
Fifty Shades of Black’s Mrs. Robinson, portrayed by “Brady Bunch” legend Florence Henderson, traumatizes the inexperienced Christian by criticizing his sexual technique based on whether his “tempo” is “pushing” or “dragging.” Henderson did not hold back as the hard-driving dominatrix. “I pushed it as far as I needed to,” she laughs. “I may never work again except for Marlon Wayans, but there you have it. Some audiences might not expect this kind of performance from me, but my friends know I will do almost anything for a laugh.”
“Florence blew us away,” says co-writer and producer Alvarez of the veteran actress. “We always look at Florence Henderson as America’s mom, and here she becomes this abusive, older seductress who schools Marlon’s character in the ways of bondage and rough sex. She crushed it.”
For another scene, Wayans enjoyed strip-dancing for an enthusiastic female audience. While Christian’s booty-shaking borders on the ludicrous, Wayans took his physical training for the performance quite seriously. “The male stripper scene was heaven and hell for me because I had to work out for a long time, getting up at three o’clock in the morning every day,” Wayans recalls. “I finally called Channing Tatum and told him, ‘I really respect your grind.’ Because it’s one thing if you’re doing your abs in the morning, but if you have to be naked all day and you’re working 14-hour days, that puts something else on you.”
Christian Black’s Twisted Family
Although Christian Black’s quirky behavior often defies comprehension, his perversity begins to make sense to Hannah once she meets his family including Christian’s sexually prodigious brother Eli portrayed by Affion Crockett. Christian’s father Jerry, played by Fred Willard, shows an unsavory interest in his adopted twentysomething Korean daughter. Then there’s Christian’s wealthy racist mother Claire, played by Jane Seymour, who reflexively tasers Hannah the first time they meet. “Christian’s mom just can’t help herself,” Wayans says.
Reknown for her wholesome “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” television character, Seymour took delight in playing a wealthy, trash-talking WASP who doesn’t even realize she’s a bigot. “When I first read the script, I went, ‘This is so wrong that it’s right,’” she recalls.
Her character unleashes a litany of ethnic stereotypes while hosting an out-of-control family dinner. “Claire means well when she serves Christian some fried chicken and Kool-Aid for dinner, but you know, there are other things black people eat,” Wayans says. “She just doesn’t know any better.”
Seymour, who played a loopy matriarch in the 2005 comedy Wedding Crashers, was thrilled to have a chance to do something even more over the top. “I thought Wedding Crashers had the most outrageous dinner scene I’d ever do, but now I’ve done something even crazier,” she says. “My adopted Korean daughter has come for dinner so we’ve hidden the cats, because I’m afraid of what she might do with them.”
Wayans likens the wild family gathering to Eddie Murphy’s famous scene in The Nutty Professor. “It’s wild, it’s racy, it’s raucous because you’ve got Black’s mom ranting all this racist stuff while Eli and Kateesha are on top of the table literally having sex and everyone’s just eating their food like it’s an everyday thing.”
Kateesha Goes “Ratchet”
Comedian Jenny Zegrino makes her scene-stealing feature-film debut in Fifty Shades of Black as Hannah’s lusty, plus-sized roommate Kateesha. Zegrino first worked with Wayans when she appeared on his “Funniest Wins” standup-comedy reality TV series. “People who see this movie should know that we’re going to be as funny and as gross as possible. My parents definitely will not be seeing Fifty Shades of Black and hopefully none of their friends will tell them what happens because we’re really pushing the boundaries,” says Zegrino.
To prepare for her performance as a white girl who sounds black and talks dirty, Zegrino studied so-called “ratchet” videos about street diva behavior. “I did a lot a research by looking at YouTube videos like ‘How to Be Ratchet,’ and ‘Ratchet Girl Anthem.’ I also watched a lot of ‘World Star Hip Hop’ and saw ladies beating each other up. That wasn’t fun, but I learned a lot. All I can say about Kateesha is, she’s a badass bitch from the street.”
Wayans and Alvarez based the Kateesha character on a growing trend they’ve observed in hip-hop culture. “Kateesha’s the new black-white girl, the chocolate-vanilla,” says Wayans. “You see all these white girls now like Iggy Azalea who ratchet things up like they’re being a black diva. We thought it’d be fun, instead of having a black girl be ratchet, to give that complexion to a loud, boisterous white girl.”
The Sleek Fifty Shades Look
Fifty Shades of Black director Mike Tiddes worked with director of photography David Ortkiese, production designer Ermanno Di Febo-Orsini and costume designer Ariyela Wald-Cohain to emulate an elegant visual style. Tiddes, who earlier directed Wayans in A Haunted House and its sequel, said, “We wanted to create a sleek and elegant with some flair.”
Tiddes’ attention to detail went into overdrive when it came to Christian Black’s S&M chamber. “It was my favorite location,” says Hawk. “The set design was so amazing that I really just wanted to live there. It was like walking into the most fashionable Parisian boutique of interesting leathers that I’ve ever seen. We had a lot a fun with different whips and spanking objects and crops and all kinds of crazy stuff. For me, it was an education because I had no idea that there was that much depth to that world until I did this movie.”
In contrast to the S&M room’s understated décor, the supposedly erotic behavior that unfolds within the chamber takes shape as a succession of clumsy mishaps. “This is supposed to be where things gets nasty,” says Hawk, “but the Red Room of Pain turns out to be a Red Room of really bad sex. Christian Black likes to say, ‘Where there’s pleasure there is bound to be pain.’ Hannah certainly takes it like a champ. But even though she’s inexperienced, Hannah knows enough to understand that Christian Black is the worst lover of all time. He does the best he can with what God has given him, which unfortunately is not very much.”