There’s no grand statement in the opening scene of boomerang, but it still says plenty about the film’s world. Once those elevator doors part, it’s game on for ad exec Marcus Graham (Eddie Murphy), who flashes a self-assured smile and glides through an office building, brimming with confidence the whole way. He greets damn near every woman with that smile and bedroom eyes before sliding into his spacious, modernist office. It’s clear that he loves everything about the position he occupies in the world, including having a secretary who can facilitate the delivery of a single long-stem rose to several women along with a card reading: “Thinking only of you.” The fact that everyone in the office is Black stands out only if you’re looking for it or troubled by it. But for the people who work there, it’s just business as usual.
boomerang was somewhat anomalous when it was released 30 years ago today. It was considered subversive for dropping audiences into the world of Marcus, an arrogant womanizer draped in Thierry Mugler, then inverting that world through the introduction of Jacqueline (Robin Givens), who eclipses him in both professional status and ruthlessness with the opposite sex. In typical fashion, Marcus can’t handle being treated as he treats women, so he gravitates toward another new colleague, the less imposing Angela (Halle Berry), creating a highly flammable love triangle. However, witnessing a man self-destruct because he can’t reap what he sowed isn’t the extent of why boomerang is exceptional. boomerang was a landmark moment for the expansion of Black cinema during the early 1990s. Its $42 million budget was the largest for any Black film at the time. It was director Reginald Hudlin’s highly anticipated follow-up to house party. And as a romantic comedy, it was uncharted territory for Murphy, who built his movie stardom in the previous decade through the fish-out-of-water comedy Trading Placesbuddy-cop vehicles like the Beverly Hills Cop and 48 hrs., raunchy comedy specials Eddie Murphy: Delirious and Eddie Murphy: Rawand the singular achievement of Coming to America. boomerang was also seen as a course correction for Murphy following the icy critical response to 1989’s Harlem Nights and 1990’s Another 48 Hrs. (Even the soundtrack, a heat check from Babyface and LA Reid that featured one of the biggest songs of the ’90s in Boyz ll Men’s “End of the Road” and introduced the world to Toni Braxton via music pulled straight from the story’s marrow, exhibited how boomerang‘s many moving parts hit the mark.)
what’s more, boomerang featured an almost exclusively Black cast of cross-generational talent, including royalty like Eartha Kitt and Melvin Van Peebles and on-the-brink stars like Berry and Martin Lawrence. Berry had just made her film debut in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever the previous year, and followed it up with roles in Strictly Business and The Last Boy Scout. boomerang‘s premiere was an event held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, drawing a who’s who of Black Hollywood circa 1992, from Denzel Washington to then–rising comic Jamie Foxx. It became one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of the year domestically and went on to make more than $130 million globally. beyond the numbers, boomerang lives on as one of the all-time great romantic comedies because of its rhythm and style. The Thanksgiving scene, in which John Witherspoon and Bebe Drake shine as the uptight Gerard’s (David Alan Grier) boisterous parents, is not only one of boomerang‘s funniest scenes, it’s also one of its best.
boomerang is a success by essentially every measure, yet some critics at papers of record said the quiet part rather loudly by suggesting that the lack of white characters in significant roles was fantasy. In a review for The New York Times, the critic Janet Maslin described the cosmetic company Marcus, Jacqueline, and Angela work for as an “improbably glamorous corporate universe” and later said the film “pays no attention to social reality.” In a more incendiary (particularly regarding all Murphy-related things) review for the Los Angeles Timesthe critic Kenneth Turan claimed that boomerang‘s racial makeup was its most compelling feature. Although he noted that a film this scale focusing on the lives of Black people was “very long overdue,” he also argued that the execution “feels in its own way as silly and arbitrary as mainstream movies without any people of color on the screen.”
These perspectives (particularly Turan’s) prompted both Hudlin and Murphy to pen op-eds for the Los Angeles Times in response. “For those who cannot rise above their own ignorance and admit to themselves that there are indeed successful Black companies in this country, I suggest a review of the Black Enterprise magazine’s annual BE 100,” Murphy wrote. “For those who feel that it’s racist for a film to have a predominantly Black cast, one has only to look at the countless movies that portray an all-white world.”
boomerang created a world that Black people navigated largely unconcerned with the presence of their white counterparts. White people exist as waitstaff, racist salespeople, and even corporate clientele, but they aren’t the focus—which is no more unrealistic than Black professional environments of various sizes and levels of success. Awareness of your proximity to white people, as well as how they perceive you, doesn’t necessitate any type of fixation on them. Simply put, white people aren’t part of every conversation and definitely shouldn’t be leading specific ones. boomerang didn’t erase white people as some retaliatory measure, it just dared to depict a reality that some people were uncomfortable with.
Although the concept for boomerang originated with Murphy, it was created amid Hollywood’s new interest in Black stories and Black filmmakers. “White America knows very little about us, and very few of our stories have been told,” Hudlin said in a 1991 New York Times Magazine story about the industry finally opening its eyes. Even though the door Spike Lee cracked open with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It allowed more talent to pass through in the ensuing years, that talent was still obstructed by Hollywood’s racism. Paramount understood the value of a Black story propelled by Murphy, but some executives had lingering doubts steeped in outright racism. In a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hudlin recalled an executive questioning the viability of a romantic comedy starring Murphy because of his “broad nose and big lips.” If someone with decision-making power saw no issue with saying that to a Black director, imagine what’s said in private. But that comment also reveals more about the perception of Murphy at the time.
Murphy is right at home as Marcus Graham, one of his definitive roles. Though he had nothing to prove (Paramount fast-tracked boomerang because he’s Eddie fucking Murphy), he was definitely rolling the dice by branching out and starring in a romantic comedy. And while he slid into the role with ease, it’s very plausible that some white people struggled to see him in a different light because of their relationship with him. After getting his break on Saturday Night Live, Murphy became one of the biggest stars of the 1980s by playing slicksters like Axel Foley and Reggie Hammond, characters who may have been a little disruptive, but ultimately won over the white characters who they were paired with. This made the masses comfortable with Murphy—to a certain degree, because his comedy specials were definitely n’t “safe.” The 48 hrs. series, the Beverly Hills Cop films, and even Trading Places featured white characters that white viewers could identify with, but boomerang didn’t offer that type of entry point. That said, white people can still enjoy boomerang, they just have to reconcile the reality that they aren’t necessarily the target audience. As the scene when Marcus scares the racist salesman illustrates, boomerang didn’t care about white people’s comfort. That wasn’t the goal.
Even though boomerang keys in on upwardly mobile, 30-ish Black folks, its appeal extends beyond that demographic. At the same time, boomerang is very much a celebration of Black people and Black culture. The scale of the production is a testament to how Murphy maximized his standing in tandem with Hollywood’s new fascination with Black stories told by Black people. boomerang also Black talent of the past, present, and future. Van Peebles, considered the godfather of contemporary Black cinema, has a cameo as an editor. Geoffrey Holder, one of the creative forces behind the original production of The Wiz, plays the eccentric Nelson. Grace Jones plays the more eccentric Strange in a role written specifically for her. And Kitt, who was marginalized following her dissenting comments about the Vietnam War, plays Lady Eloise, who seduces Marcus before her company merges with his employer dela. Murphy was the superstar, but Givens and Grier had made names for themselves. boomerang also teed up Berry, Lawrence, Tisha Campbell (who would begin starring alongside Lawrence in martin less than two months after the film’s release), and Chris Rock (who has a bit part as the overeager Bony T) to take the next steps in their careers. But for all of its impact, boomerang was more than some representational triumph—it’s an overall creative victory.
Murphy is strong as the lothario brought to his knees, but he also flexes his range: Here, he’s suave in addition to funny. Givens is great as Jacqueline, who exudes confidence while dominating nearly every scene she’s in—most notably those with Murphy. Berry is good as Angela, who’s the opposite of Jacqueline but refuses to let Marcus use her as a way to restore her deflated ego. She lights up every frame, but she doesn’t hesitate to put him in her place when he gets out of pocket. The pacing is just right, aided by sharp humor. On top of that, the film’s appreciation for style is not limited to the wardrobe, it’s reflected by the interior design of Marcus’s and Jacqueline’s apartments.
That doesn’t mean boomerang is without flaw. As natural as Marcus, Tyler (Lawrence), and Gerard’s banter feels, the transphobia is a black eye. Marcus’s inability to see women as human beings until he gets a taste of his own medicine isn’t exactly forward-thinking. And even though Marcus gets humbled, he still gets what he wants in the end. You could argue that he doesn’t deserve Angela at all; he can’t even explain why she should take him back. But none of this sullies boomerangwhich remains a multilevel accomplishment.
Shortly after boomerang‘s release, Murphy appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to promote the film. “The coolest thing about boomerang—and the most political thing about boomerang—is that it’s a movie with an all-Black cast and it has nothing to do with being Black,” he said to applause. He’s right: boomerang is a story about Black people, not a story about being Black. It added to the depictions of Black people in Hollywood films during a crucial period of growth for Black cinema. All it took to achieve that was showing how some Black people live, without regard for outside perspectives.
Maybe that felt out of step with some people’s perception of reality, but Black people have long been impeded by the limits of white people’s imaginations. boomerang wasn’t concerned with their myopia or cognitive dissonance because it wasn’t concerned with them at all. And at this point, boomerang‘s legacy is that of a very good film—not just an important Black film. The reality is that boomerang it’s not an anomaly, it’s just exceptional.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.