In the 1989 companion book for Spike Lee’s breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing (which includes the original screenplay, production diary, and notes on the film), Lee expresses his desire to make a film that tackled racism while showing a lower-class African-American neighborhood in a positive light, implying (through fancy clothes and apparent lack of employment) that some of the characters are involved in the drug trade but not getting into the drug-related, Black-on-Black violence within the community (he saved that for Clockers). He wanted to make a slice-of-life film that unexpectedly erupted into the Italians-versus-Blacks violence that plagued New York at the time of the film’s production. True to his word, there are hints of the neighborhood’s dark edges (the errant boarded-up brownstone, Ossie Davis’s lovelorn wino, Giancarlo Esposito’s coveted Air Jordans, and Bill Nunn’s hulking figure stomping around the neighborhood with an enormous ghetto blaster, just daring someone to mess with him), but the film downplays many of the neighborhood’s endemic problems in order to focus on a deeper problem.

Friday serves as the polar opposite, a “laugh that I would not cry” take on urban decay that plays like a stoner-buddy comedy but doesn’t shy away from gangsters, drug dealers, gun violence, and the strange mixture of community spirit and abject terror that comes from living in a place like South Central, Los Angeles (or Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn). Played mostly for laughs, the film focuses on Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker), who while away most of a Friday on Craig’s front porch. Yesterday, Craig managed to get fired on his day off, so he starts Friday in a bad frame of mind. His father (John Witherspoon) suggests Craig join him in the dog-catching trade. When Craig balks that he doesn’t like dogs, his father considers that a virtue of the job — you can abuse and torture them in the process of catching them. (Late in the film, Mr. Jones watches 1993’s Man’s Best Friend and cheers for the unlikely outcome of a postman taking down the genetically mutated psycho-dog.)

Craig’s best friend, Smokey, is a lazy pot dealer who encourages Craig’s worst traits and smokes more product than he sells. His supplier, Big Worm (Faizon Love), gives him until midnight to get the $200 he owes for a batch of indo he was supposed to sell. Smokey enlists Craig’s help in getting the money; when Craig balks, Smokey tells Big Worm that he and Craig are in it together. Left with no other choice, Craig and Smokey alternate between scheming to get the money and sitting on the porch, watching the active neighborhood and trying not to think about their fate.

Much of the comedy comes from the interaction between straight-man Craig and clownish sidekick Smokey, whose obsession with getting high and passing along neighborhood lore effectively distracts Craig from his disastrous life. The laughs that don’t come from these two are provided by a colorful supporting cast that includes Bernie Mac, Tony Cox, Regina King, co-writer DJ Pooh, and Anthony Johnson. Aside from the generally off-screen menace of Big Worm, Craig’s major conflict comes from Deebo (Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.), a hulking terror who rides around on a stolen bicycle and casually robs people in the neighborhood. Craig and Smokey hiding their wallets and gold chains whenever he comes around becomes a running gag. When Deebo forces Smokey to help him rob a house, Smokey finds the $200 he needs — but Deebo snatches it, because that’s the kind of guy he is.

The amazing thing about Friday is that it manages to make Deebo, who uses only his size and demeanor to get what he wants, a bigger threat than Big Worm’s drive-by shooting (which is played mostly for laughs). The film’s central conflict is more about Craig learning to stand up for himself and be a man — without the aid of the Glock he hides in his underwear drawer — instead of letting people like Deebo roll over him constantly. The film’s third act gets quite dark and thematically echoes Cube’s breakthrough film, Boyz N the Hood, in giving Craig a difficult choice that may have dire consequences on Saturday, but maybe he can go to sleep on Friday feeling good about himself.

Inferior sequels have tainted Friday’s legacy, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a solid comedy that’s about more than getting easy laughs (though it doesn’t shy away from those). That’s a shame, because it provides an entertaining, thoughtful glimpse into a world that, in cinema, generally serves as a backdrop for histrionic crime dramas.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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