This is The Continuation Of An Artistic Fight That Started 80 Years Ago. In The Real World We Are Billionaires, Geniuses And Presidents. Why Can't We Be The Same In The World Of Art?
Spike Lee's film Bamboozled was a bold, incendiary movie about a future where black people would be so removed from their nobility, roots and history that a TV show with actual, black-faced minstrels became popular. The movie did not make a lot of money but many critics thought it was a masterpiece. I agree.
And now the film has in part become a reality.
We now have images, music and movies that would have been comfortable in America 80 years ago and that just 20 years ago would have made us go into the streets with torches and pitchforks. Now we look at this denigration and assess how much money someone is making from it and use that to justify why it's OK and why we shouldn't care. Are we so beaten down, depressed and broken that new millennium black-face is representative of our culture? And if anyone says out loud that they don't like it, are they a "hater" because they didn't think of it sooner to make money?
This is at the heart of the Spike Lee Tyler Perry Feud. Spike has said repeatedly that the images in Perry's films are harmful and echo painful imagery of our oppressed past. Idris Elba and John Singleton also spoke out against Perry's films. Are they haters as well? Or do we all now subscribe to the explanation "It's real, we know people like this in our families." That sounds like the drug dealer who says "society left me no choice."
We all know the history of the minstrel. It was an effort to make black people's images consistent with the falsity of our inhumanity. In the beginning, it was our enemies who fostered these images. Now we help them out: the buffoon, the pickaninny and the Jezebel have been replaced with the loud-mouthed reality show star, the ho, the feminized male, the stupid thug or rapper and the ignorant, obese innocent. Sorry NeNe, last time we saw you, you were yelling how you didn't know nothing 'bout birthin' no babies.
In the 1930's, one of the most successful actors in the country was a man named Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, you know him now as his infamous movie character Stepin Fetchit. He was the first black actor to receive a screen credit and the first to become a millionaire. His lazy, bug-eyed character was wildly popular with whites but what you never read about is that he was also popular with blacks, who then in 1930, just wanted to see a black person onscreen.
Mostly though there was widespread opposition to Perry and his odious character in the black community. And so there was heated debate. Many black leaders, including Paul Robeson disliked his films and said so in public. Some felt that Perry was successful and so it was okay, while others felt that he was destroying any chance black people had of being taken seriously. Perry was called a brilliant businessman and a tireless entertainer but also a buffoon, a minstrel and a clown....
I'm sorry, which century and which Perry was I talking about?
In the 1970's, Jimmie JJ Walker's character was similarly called offensive and he was defended by noting his success as the highest paid man in TV. Co-star John Amos objected to the character publicly and eventually left the show in what is now a famous episode of Good Times. Black TV characters like JJ were around for the next fifteen years, until a man named Cosby changed the game. Stepin Fetchit died a pariah and Jimmie Walker's TV character is still considered an embarrassment.
Stepin Fetchit must be looking at this from the great beyond and laughing. He was ridiculed in his life time but it seems that his legacy just won't die. Lincoln Perry was not a stupid man but an ambitious one who saw opportunity and thought money and fame would buy him respect and legitimacy. He was wrong.
This is the part where we wonder why we can't "all get together" and do something. People, we can't get together to order a pizza in the black community. And we can never decipher why wealthy black business people don't invest in black film. But what we can do is stop supporting stereotypes. if we do, people will have no reason to make them. Stepin Fetchit's films kept going because people paid to see them and as soon as they stopped, he stopped. I can tell you right now, that if black people don't fund their own films and support the positive ones, we will never see the stories we want. And for that we will have no one to blame but ourselves. And Lincoln Perry will have his revenge.
The modern black mind is very complicated and filled with many inconsistencies. We want so much to be just like everyone else but at the same time we want recognition of our unique position in this country as the only descendants of American bondage. We want to get beyond our stereotypes but we desperately cling to them and we defiantly demand to be part of American culture as we still seek to define our own.
Reviewing a book on Stepin Fetchit, commentator Armond White wrote:
Should African-American performers be accountable to political correctness? To what degree should they worry that their antics shape the self-image of young African-Americans? Should they follow any standard other than their own conscience? Should they have a conscience? ... The psychological rationale for racism cuts two ways—flattering whites and defaming blacks—and it rebounded upon Stepin Fetchit and stained his soul. Watkins revives the ghost without heeding the opportunistic performers who follow Stepin Fetchit's path, a scary thing.
So, I ask you who are we, people? The Family at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. or Madea's Big Happy Family? And if you think we are both, then tell me where the Obama family movie is. I want to buy a ticket.