At any given moment, on any given day, Black Entertainment Television (BET) and other cable stations will air music videos that feature young black men in loose, ill-fitting clothes, hunched over like monkeys, grimacing and gesticulating in front of the camera. Those men are surrounded by young black women in bikini thongs who either bump and grind against the men in a sad parody of sex or who bend over at the waist and present their buttocks to the audience like orangutans in heat.
Every single televised professional football and basketball game features young black men who pound themselves on the chest and strut about like gorillas after making a good play. And, after a score, they often get together with their teammates and dance an impromptu jig. All they need is a banjo.
And on cable comedy shows on BET and HBO, black comedians such as Chris Rock deliver their routines in fluid Ebonics, laced so liberally with profanity that we may miss the point of their humor--which is that blacks are generally sorry, lazy, good-for-nothing folk, who will steal change out of a blind man's hat if you don't keep an eye on them.
The only thing some African-American comedians, athletes, and hip-hop artists need to complete the minstrel picture is blackface, with bright red lips and white circles around the eyes.
Filmmaker Spike Lee could have ripped those athletes and artists to shreds, stripped them of all pretense, shamed them to the core of their miserable souls, in his new movie Bamboozled. All he had to do was juxtapose their antics today against the minstrel acts of the past. The correspondence is dumfounding.
Lee's movie also could have raised profoundly disturbing questions about today's audiences. The old minstrel acts mostly featured whites in blackface making fun of African-Americans for the amusement of other whites. The handful of African-American comedians of that day spent the rest of their lives apologizing to their family and friends for the roles they played. Today's minstrels, though, are celebrated and applauded as much, if not more, by blacks than whites. When Chris Rock--his accent so thick you'd think he just got off the boat from Ebonics Land--cracks a joke about how black men habitually dog and disrespect their women, the camera cuts to a mostly black audience laughing and stomping their feet and giving each other high-fives, as if to say, "Ain't it the truth, honey chile!"
Unfortunately, Bamboozled cops out. Lee is arguably one of today's most courageous filmmakers. But not even he had the guts to call out his colleagues in the entertainment industry. The central, unequivocal point of Bamboozled is that minstrel shows were ugly and painful at the turn of the last century. Well, no duh. Lee tiptoes around everything else.
Of course, I understand why he had to soften his message. One of the film's stars, Damon Wayans, got fat off of minstrel humor in the comedy variety show In Living Color. Another of his stars, Jada Pinkett-Smith, got her big break by playing the hands-on-hips, finger-wagging, sassy-tongued miss in a variety of movie roles. And Lee himself is making a financial killing with his concert film, The Original Kings of Comedy, featuring comedians whose language is so deeply rooted in profanity and street slang, and whose portrayal of their community is so low-down, that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Ku Klux Klan uses Kings of Comedy as a recruitment film.
Still, in interviews, Lee says he hopes Bamboozled will inspire audiences to think and discuss and reach their own conclusions.
Well, let's do that.
One question that comes to mind: How can we distinguish between general buffoonery and a deliberate, malicious attack on the race? For example, those football players dancing a jig in the end zone might well be shocked to see how closely their victory dance resembles that of field hands dancing in movies such as Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation. Could this be a simple coincidence? I don't think so. Here's a rule of thumb: If a man prances like a minstrel, he's probably got a minstrel mentality.
Another question is whether today's black actors and athletes are compelled to play the buffoon--and, if so, compelled by whom? Bamboozled suggests that in order to get ahead, creative black people are forced to produce the kind of material that white executives want. But getting ahead is not the same as struggling to survive. Getting ahead is about greed and self-aggrandizement. I have very little sympathy with that kind of "compulsion."
Finally, we might also ask why such offensive material is so popular with today's black audiences. Is it that we see more than an element of truth in such portrayals? Are minstrels of the new millennium keeping it real, as they like to boast? No, I think we embrace today's minstrels because they are familiar. Many of today's stars present the same, old racist images we grew up with. And, sadly, those images have surrounded us for so long that we've grown comfortable with them.
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