Monday, July 4, 2011

"Come Fly With Me": When is it okay for two rich, white Englishmen to wear black face?

I've been meaning to catch "Little Britain" creators David Walliams and Matt Lucas' latest comic series, the mockumentary "Come Fly With Me" on BBC America (Saturdays, 11:30 p.m. ET) . Saturday night I did. And...well...


"Come Fly With Me" generated some controversy when it debuted in Britain. As in their earlier hit series, Walliams and Lucas spend a fair amount of time in prosthetics creating oddball characters. And in this case, several of the characters are of color, like Precious Little above, leading to complaints of racial insensitivity.  In a spot on review, the Guardian's Balaji Ravichandran offers:
Imagine the BBC commissioning a new television series composed of the following elements: a rich Middle-Eastern billionaire who owns the busiest airport in the country, but who is so mean and stingy that you have to pay to access the safety equipment; an Asian man (with a beard, of course) who attempts to enter the country using the passport of a white teenage girl (which the white, racist and xenophobic immigration officer allows); a middle-aged black woman played yet again by a "blacked-up" white man, who utters "Praise the Lord" at the end of every sentence, is too lazy to run her coffee shop and who spends her time shopping for cheap bargains at the airport; two Japanese schoolgirls – you guessed it right, white men with modified eyelids, eyebrows and lip-curves – waiting anxiously at the airport for an ostensibly minor celebrity's autograph and photos; and of course, the token sexist Muslim who, in his inability to talk in complete sentences, calls every female "a bitch" and sexualises anything in a skirt. Read more...
It is easy to think the problem here is simply black face or brown face--that it is always wrong for white people to darken their faces and take on mannerisms associated with black, Latino, Native or Asian people, particularly for humor. I'm not sure I agree with that. I think it depends on context. I have seen Tracey Ullman get it right, as in the following clip satirizing America's aggrandizing of white celebrities who adopt rescue poor, poor, black children from their terrible, Third World countries.

And I actually thought Robert Downey Jr.'s turn in "Tropic Thunder" was hilarious. In that case, the joke wasn't "Aren't colored folks and their culture funny?". It was: Imagine the privilege and ridiculousness of a white, Australian actor who wants to embody a middle aged black man as his next Oscar-baiting star turn, refusing to break character and culling "black wisdom" from the Jefferson's theme song; and imagine the cluelessness of the Hollywood executives who would hire him without blinking an eye. (The film had other racial fails; Downey's makeup just wasn't one of them in my opinion.)

It would be odd, I imagine, if in a metropolitan English airport (where the mockumentary "Come Fly With Me" is set) there were no black or Asian workers. And, since Walliams and Lucas play most every character in the show, it would stand to reason that they might play some characters of color. The problem is that while the pair's white characters are meant to be funny because of their quirks, the characters of color are funny mostly because of their non-whiteness, or rather quirks that seem culled from stereotypes.

Racialicious introduced me to the Kate Rigg rule that helps define a difference between a joke that involves race and a racist joke:
When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!” Read more...
With some exceptions, in "Come Fly With Me," Walliams and Lucas are merely mimicking what they believe to be the accents and mannerisms of people of color and throwing in dash of stereotypical quirkiness. That fat, black, afroed woman is hyper-religious and lazy, sometimes taking time off from her job to go to the nail shop and get brightly-colored, impractically-long fake nails. Hilarious! Edgy! Never done before!

This isn't a new sort of fail for Walliams and Lucas. From "Little Britian," Rev. Jesse King:


Longtime readers of What Tami Said, know I have an answer for those who will cry "free speech," "political correctness" or "equal opportunity" humor. So does Ravichandran:
I cannot understand the logic by which things we would find otherwise objectionable in the extreme are deemed permissible, at their offensive best, in comedy alone. To say that it is for the sake of art is to escape artistic responsibility, even when one subscribes unconditionally to art pour l'art. For what exactly is the point of reiterating a conventional set of racial and sexual stereotypes? Do they promote integration or tolerance? Do they make a worthwhile statement on the dynamics of our society? Are such reiterations even witty? Not art by any stretch of the word, but mere exploitation of the artistic licence for cheap laughs.
I, for one, cannot find it funny.


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