By Zim Ezumah
After the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murder George Zimmerman in 2013, a new sense of social perspective swept the young, black community. The “woke” sentiment permeated pop culture, with a new generation of folks thinking critically about their representations in the media, specifically entertainment.
As long as I can remember, comedy has been my favorite art form in the world. I binged watched institutions like SNL and The Simpsons, read biographies of my favorite comedians. I loved the ability it had to make light of day-to-day life, serious issues, and complicated topics. In recent years, however, the purpose of comedy has shifted, and it’s left me conflicted.
Depending on who you ask, Chris Rock either hosted the Oscars with funny, poignant remarks about #OscarsSoWhite and diversity in Hollywood, or he shamed Black and Asian performers while mocking the very cause that led to all of the scrutiny of the ceremony. In a similar vein, Leslie Jones’s turn in the just-premiered trailer for Ghostbusters was either a black comedienne whose long-overdue time in the spotlight got a hilarious debut as a street smart MTA worker or a willing sambo for Hollywood’s twisted agenda against black comedians, denying her the dignity of being casted as a scientists like her white counterparts.
Now, far be it from me to police how others respond to art. I fully believe people are entitled to freedom of speech, reaction of opinion.That being said. I find it weird that comedy has become such a politically charged platform. The whole purpose of comedy, specifically black comedy, has been to highlight our alternative culture and celebrate our authentic selves. Chris Rock made comments I’d hear at my local barbershop. Leslie Jones reminds me of my hilarious aunties after church. Why are those expressions subject to so much scrutiny?
I believe being “unapologetically black” should apply to all areas of our lives, not just when white people aren’t looking. My blackness is something I refuse to be ashamed of or shame other black people for.
A white audience shouldn’t impair how we distribute our art, and to see other black people apply their elitist, respectability-politics laden rhetoric on individuals whose only goal is to get a laugh makes me kind of sad for the future of comedy.
It’s funny -The same rhetoric people use to vilify individuals like Rock and Jones were used against comedy specials and individuals who we now regard as legendary. When Chapelle’s Show debuted in 2003, black folks were LIVID at his portrayal of Clayton Bigsby and criticized his glamorization of crack addiction through the role of Tyrone Biggums. The Boondocks’ “Return of the King” episode got shredded as a mockery of Dr. King’s persona, slamming his use of the word “nigga” and his anger towards the new generation of Black performers. Hell, even Rock, who before the ceremony had articles ran about his behind-the-scenes support for Black actresses, caught hell for his infamous “Niggas vs. Black People” bit, which he’s since renounced, citing his unwillingness to perform it in front of white audiences, a far removal from the predominantly Black crowd the bit originated from. My heart sang when I watched a lily-white Oscars ceremony get interjected by Rock’s unapologetic Blackness, showcasing the Academy’s embarrassing out-of-touchness by featuring people of color blanking on the movies honored that night, having overlooked stars of 2015 like Abraham Attah and Michael B. Jordan take the stage and showcasing some Black fatherhood beauty and #BlackGirlMagic by giving airtime to the Girl Scouts of Inglewood (aka my old troop :)) .While people were seeking his Nat X character, I think his more subtle points drove home the message of #OscarsSoWhite, which is what “we” wanted in the first place.
I say this to say that to restrict comedy to the same “problematic” judgment scale that we apply to other forms of media (drama, news, music) is contradictory in itself. While comedy can be used as a teaching tool, it’s intention is to hit you at your core and bring joy and whimsy to your day.
It’s weird that Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson can be cast as an asexual, bumbling fat white woman time and time again and no one from her community slams her for “making them look bad” or “enforcing stereotypes”.
I understand that as a Black woman, Leslie Jones doesn’t have the privilege of sharing her representation with countless other, more “successful” Black women on the silver screen. But the burden of representation shouldn’t be her cross to bear alone, especially when it comes to a part written to emphasize her natural comedic timing, energy, and candor. If she was a scientist in Ghostbusters, would she have the same opportunity to display the wit and humor that’s made her a standout on SNL? Although I can side eye the cornball things Hollywood’s white male writers might have her say to support the loud, black women stereotype, I can’t help but wonder if she was a petite, light-skinned woman instead. Leslie Jones being large and darkskin makes other black women uncomfortable, as darker skinned women are judged more harshly against the respectability meter than their lighter counterparts. When Beyonce sang about having hot sauce in her bag at the Superbowl we howled and cheered her willingness to celebrate her blackness on. But Jones can’t even play an MTA worker, a position numerous Black women have and excel at, without it being a slap in the face to Black women everywhere? I call “BS.”
Now, no shade to my folks who feel differently about everything I’ve said. Some will concentrate on the larger picture of representation rather than the individual performer (which I sure hope so, because I’m tired of seeing white publications trip over themselves to publish our searing critiques of our own people while rephrasing and ignoring the critiques of white performers) and that’s a cause I can get behind. But I can’t help but wonder if the shows and movies I loved from yesteryear and projects from people I love today could survive in this respectability-politics, hot-takes, condemn-a-performer-from-a-trailer, self-important atmosphere. It’s making me wonder if Black comedy can survive the judgment of the woke.
By Zim Ezumah