Readers of this column should know by now that I handicap the good speaking roles for black actors in the movies I pay to see. Generally speaking, I will pay to see a movie with a handicap of three or less if the story is compelling enough or if it stars actors I trust. My personal rule when it comes to supporting black comic actors is if a movie has a handicap of six or higher, I will pay to see it twice — no matter how bad it is the first time.
But that’s me. I may have a little chip on my shoulder because I grew up in the 1980s under the tutelage of the Black Comedy Triumvirate (Robert Townsend, Bill Cosby, and the immortal Richard Pryor) while watching Hollywood struggle to properly utilize the talents of the greatest comedic performer of his generation, Eddie Murphy. So I want to see more black comedic actors in the movies and on TV. If you’re like me, you should go see “Death At A Funeral” because there are no fewer than eight good, funny, speaking parts played by eight talented, funny black actors; and the only way we’re going to see more movies and TV shows like it is by putting our money where our mouths are.
I will warn you that it’s directed by Neil Labute, and he can’t make a good movie without Aaron Eckhart. But it’s written by the same writer who wrote the same movie (with the same title and the same plot) that was in theaters back in the summer of 2007. So if you liked Frank Oz’ “Death At A Funeral” three years ago but thought it needed more pratfalls, swearing, hallucinogenic drug use, and nudity, then you’re going to love Neil Labute’s version. He even throws in a totally cringe-worthy sight gag involving a wheelchair-bound Danny Glover (who has to make a “number two”), Tracy Morgan (who has to help him onto the throne), and a bathroom mirror.
But scat aside, I like this story because it takes place in a world where black dudes like Tracy Morgan and white dudes like Luke Wilson actually know each other, know each other’s families, do things together, and (God forbid) care about each other. It’s a world where black women like Zoe Saldana are pursued by two different suitors and her father prefers the one who isn’t an idiot, not the one who isn’t white (he doesn’t have a choice on that one, they’re both white dudes). It’s the same world that millions of us wake up in every single morning, but for some reason it doesn’t exist in Tyler Perry movies or Mike Nichols movies.
In that world, people of different colors exist in totally different spheres and almost never the twain shall meet. Unfortunately for black and brown actors, that’s the “default world” when it comes to movies and TV. It hasn’t just been white, it’s been all white all the time. In that world, black and brown characters aren’t typically developed, rather they depend on some obvious frame of reference like working as a mailman or a construction worker in order for white audiences to be able to relate to them. That has led to some of the racial and ethnic clichés we’ve learned to reject; but it’s also given rise to the more subtle shallowness of simply classifying black and brown people by their job. The negative stereotype is easily recognizable as being prejudicial, the occupational stereotype is no less dehumanizing. You don’t know who someone is because you can see what they do.
I’ve used a lot of space in this column over the years to advocate for the reinstatement of the position of “The Other Black Guy” on “Saturday Night Live.” I understand that Kenan Thompson is so talented that he’s believable as Charles Barkley and The Rev. Al Sharpton. That doesn’t mean the show only needs one black actor in the cast. There has been an unbroken string of first ladies on “SNL” going back to Betty Ford, but Michelle hasn’t been on the show since Maya Rudolph left.
Whether or not they realize it or are aware of it, white people generally suffer from a hysterical, irrational fear of black dudes. We don’t blame you, it’s how you were raised. Our best assets for dispelling that hysterical, irrational fear are our truth-telling comedic performers. You can’t be afraid of Robert Townsend, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, or Chris Rock because you’re too busy laughing with them. And we need guys like them to build bridges between Tyler Perry-world, Mike Nichols-world, and George Lopez-world.
So, please support black comedic performers, even when they’re not on top of their game, because they serve an important function. I’m not saying you should go see this movie for me, white people, but I think it’s only fair considering I paid to see “The Men Who Stare At Goats.”
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who really misses Dave Chappelle. Kenny’s past columns are archived at http://www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.