Monday, February 9, 2009

Is minstrelsy still acceptable in 2009?

I've written that I found the US version of England's popular "Little Britain" TV series sort of "meh." I couldn't figure all the hoopla about the sketch comedy show, starring Matt Lucas and David Walliams, until I caught the original series on BBC America. Now that was funny! Sophomoric. But funny. BBC America's airing of "Little Britain" has been must-see (or must-DVR) Friday night TV for me ever since. Then, last Friday, I was introduced to the character of Rev. Jesse King, a Harlem preacher who has come to England to spread the gospel.

Now, "Little Britain" has always provided some "Where's your line?" moments, but sketches involving trigger issues, such as race, gender and homophobia, seemed edgy with a redeemable point. When incorrigible delinquent Vicky Pollard, who is white, gets a boyfriend who is black, she adopts a urban Jamaican patois, thick with slang. You're led to believe the character has adopted the speech pattern from her new beau. The punchline comes when he finally speaks and does so like a proper English gentleman. Young Daffyd is sure he's "the only gay in the village," but he repeatedly discovers that many of the Welsh town's other inhabitants are too, though not as flamboyant and stereotypical as he. No matter what the Indian member of her "Fat Fighters" group says, useless and hated leader Marjorie Dawes claims not to understand, though the woman is speaking perfect English. In "Little Britain," the joke is usually on the pompous, self-absorbed, silly and ignorant. But in the Rev. King sketch, which Matt Lucas performs in black face, the audience seems to be asked to laugh at stereotypical black physicality, speech and worship. The joke is on us, it seems.

I don't object to every use of black makeup by white actors, or every portrayal of black people by white actors. Context is everything. I have said that I found Robert Downey Jr. hilarious in "Tropic Thunder," and I love Darryl Hammond's Jesse Jackson on "Saturday Night Live." But something about Lucas' portrayal of a fictional preacher feels not very different from this:

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Every minority group is forced to endure its depiction by a cruel majority. So while this 1950 minstrel show has historic value, I still think it is offensive.

Robin Tyler, the famous lesbian comedian, one changed all the jokes from "she"-- as the butt of the joke to "he." Men were furious when the jokes were turned on them. But they were fine with humiliating women.

I'd say it's best to be careful of humor. I tell wholesalers coming to my office that I am a typical humorless lesbian -- when in doubt NO jokes at all. The guys, who are there to sell me products, get it instantly. It's about who has the power.

Tami said...

Yeah, I agree that the 1950s performance is wildly offensive. And the 2009 performance by Matt Lucas was also wildly offensive to me. In its essence, I couldn't figure out what elevated the more modern comedic bit from the basic racism of the past.

Julia said...

So, I THINK the idea was to have the joke on the uptight, proper Brits who get nervous at even the idea that they might be asked to be more expressive in their faith. The idea has the potential to be quite funny, but the execution--I agree--is completely not funny and offensive. First of all, if my sense of what was intended is correct, there's no need for the preacher to be black--ANYONE with the bit of the evangelical is all that's needed. And then the stereotypes and the obvious racism--well, you've already described it in your post.

I'd never actually seen an actual minstrel show before, and I'm going to keep it that way. I only lasted about 3 seconds after the shoe polish went on.

Anonymous, I love your "typical humorless lesbian" line.So powerful and so tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed my self description. But in many ways it's true. Nothing out there seems very humorous to me, since humor is about the majority or the powerful degrading the minority or those with little institutional power. It's why white men call black women "nappy headed hos." Now let's say Don Imus was working for black women, and he had a huge mortgage to pay. One wrong word, and he'd be fired. I think Don Imus in that instance would never ever utter a "humorous" word about black women.

Humor is about power, the power to humiliate people who the powerful thing can't fight back. Men are the prime examples of people who dehumanize women in "humor" and the sickness is, these pigs expect women to laugh at their own degredation. No thank you rappers, Chris Rock or the rest of the gang! I am proudly humorless!!

Anonymous said...

That was terrible, and also disappointing, since I would love to see comedy involving an energetic black preacher trying to get a rise out of a stodgy Church of England congregation (esp. having witnessed something similar with a stodgy New England Episcopal congregation). But no, we couldn't have an "English people are stodgy" skit. We had to have a "Black people are ridiculous" skit. *rolls eyes*

Nshat said...

well, it seems like this demonstration was more than just an attack on the "evangelical" or the "proper" British religious conservative. In fact, I think that these were just a vehicle for playing on black stereotypes without having to take responsibility for it. Hence, the FACEPAINT, use of an older southern American slang,the exagerrated facial expressions and jerky body movements. I found it highly offensive and although I do believe in freedom of expression there are better ways to getting a point across.


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