Revisited: Kazaam

Kazaam is a terrible movie, but there’s a treasure trove of subtext to be explored. It offers insight into Shaq’s faith, rap career, and the darker side of being an NBA player. It’s a harsh critique of white American culture circa 1996, but also of the country’s long history of slavery and exploitation, all while offering up a caricature of Arabs that would seem racist by Bugs Bunny standards.

Made at the height of Shaquille O’Neil’s stardom, Kazaam tells the story of a magical genie rapper who lives in an old boombox that helps  young rich white kid Max reunite with his scumbag father, and come to terms with his new stepfather. Unlike Disney’s beloved Aladdin, Max never concerns himself with trying to free the djinn bound to serve him, or even create a pretense that he’s considering it. Once Kazaam proves that he’s not a mentally ill homeless man by granting Max’s first wish of junk food that rains from the sky, Max quickly accepts that he owns a sentient magical being, and calls him his slave. It should be noted that when Kazaam first emerges from his boombox prison, he’s wearing traditional African garb, and speaks English with what seems like a North African/Middle Eastern accent. O’Neal is a Muslim, so these out of place elements that allude to Arabian mythology, and the African slave trade might not be as inexplicable as they seem. Later in the film, he emerges out of Max’s bedroom dressed like a Black Muslim, complete with bow tie; it’s hard to believe that all of this is coincidental. He also speaks almost entirely in rhyme, foreshadowing entire segments of the movie designed to highlight O’Neal’s would be rap career:

The shady looking Mr. Malik (Marshall Manesh) in that last clip is only clear antagonist of the movie, who realizes that Kazaam is a djinn of legend, and seeks to gain ownership of him at all costs. In his pursuit, his goons assault Max’s deadbeat music pirate father, and later throws Max down a open elevator shaft. With Max dead, and in control of the boombox, Malik summons Kazaam to be his slave, but in a very unclear sequence the djinn is able to overpower him. Now free, Kazaam crushes his body into the shape of a basketball, slam dunks him into a garbage disposal, and lets out a howl of rage. If the intended tone was goofy, the scene reads as horrific and gruesome.

Then this happens:

It’s not often that a kid’s movie has a black man ascend into a new plane of spiritual being, becoming an angelic creature of light that can bring back the dead. Maybe O’Neal is a fan of Sun-Ra?

Kazaam is without a doubt a bad movie, but as a cultural artifact it shines. It’s hard to imagine a movie about a rich white kid owning a rapping slave coming out today, and that’s probably a good thing.

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3 Responses to “Revisited: Kazaam”

  1. Sounds awful! Though, not so hard to imagine a movie like that today, suitably in disguise, maybe. I think distrust of middle easterners in particular is pretty widespread in the west, whether people make movies about it or not (and they do).

  2. Damn you for making me want to watch Kazaam again. Great job of reading it though; it makes me wonder just where the lines were blurred.

  3. My pet theory is that the movie was originally developed as an adult comedy where the kid’s father is the character that gets the lamp/boombox, but that at some point it was changed to a family film. O’Neal was the executive producer, and didn’t want his part changed much, which is why the scenes with Kazaam and Max feel so creepy. That also would explain why Max and his father has more or less the same personality. Being greedy and selfish can work for an adult character if they have a redemptive arc, but for a child it just comes off as bratty and annoying. Imagine in the place of Max, a character like Aykroyd’s in Trading Places.

    That said, I’m not sure if there’d be much of this movie left once you start tinkering with it Plus I’d like to think I have better things to do than to write Kazaam fan fiction.

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