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?


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