By Stephanie J. Gates
I am a movie aficionado, and even with HD flat screen TVs, surround sound and blue ray capabilities to bring the movie experience home, I still love going to the movie theater to kick back, relax and enjoy a movie. I love all kinds of movies (except horror) and I pretty much take them for what they’re worth, most often mindless escapist entertainment. But scenes from three movies I’ve watched recently makes me wonder who controls our image and if “the joke is indeed on us.”
I was watching The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock as a woman who forces her assistant to propose marriage, and what happens as a result of that. It’s a comedy so I naturally knew it was supposed to be funny. There’s a scene with the fiancé’s grandmother played by Betty White as a half Indian, half white woman who encourages Bullock to get in touch with her higher self by engaging in an ancient ritual of some sort. They’re out in the woods, just the two of them and White’s character keeps encouraging Bullock to just let go. And the prim and proper high maintenance diva taps into her spiritual self by singing and dancing to Get Low and I’m laughing because the scene is funny, right?
You, know the stereotypical scene where a white person tries to dance like a black person only everyone knows white people can’t dance because they don’t have rhythm, so we laugh at them making fools of themselves because they laugh at themselves. So, I’m laughing because Sandra Bullock is trying to get in touch with herself and she’s making this spiritual connection by singing and dancing like a white girl to this nasty song, but then I stop laughing because I don’t know who I’m really laughing at: Sandra Bullock or a stereotype of myself?
This revelation made me think about two other movies that I’ve watched recently, and I am disturbed by some of the scenes that come back to me. In Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey’s portrayal of an Australian playing a black man doesn’t bother me as much as the rapper and Tom Cruise’s characters who make me say, “Hey, wait a minute!” The rapper’s name is Alpa Chino (a take-off on Al Pacino) whose claim to fame is an empire of sexual explicitness including a song called I Love the P***y! and his products Booty Sweat energy drink and Bust A Nut energy bar. He was supposed to be this over the top character, but his character is more realistic than not of some rappers.
Tom Cruise is a studio executive, who dances off Get Back and Low, and like Sandra Bullock’s character, I was cracking up again at the trying-to-be-cool white person, but then I saw the mirror and it wasn’t as funny. It reminded me of being in school and laughing at the self-appointed class clown who then turns and plays a cruel joke an unsuspecting classmate, and the hee-haws turn to horror as the victim realizes what has happened.
To Stiller’s credit, he previewed Tropic Thunder to a group of African-American journalists and to members of the NAACP, according to Wikipedia and I guess they were OK with the film. It was also said on Wikipedia that Tom Cruise came up with the idea of his character dancing. I know that Tropic Thunder is a parody so I started thinking, how do you parody a parody? I admit, it’s a funny movie, but I couldn’t help thinking who was really being mocked, and how we decide when it’s offensive and when it’s not. When Ted Danson dressed up as a minstrel, it nearly ended his career, but we support real artists like the Alpa Chino character and tune into reality TV regularly to watch buffoonery. What gives?
In the beginning of the movie, He’s Not That Into You, an array of women are explaining how to tell when a guy isn’t interested, and they show women from all walks of life: in the mall, at the gym, out side etc. But then they also show three African women sitting outside their huts talking. To make matters worse, the women’s conversation is subtitled. To comfort her friend as to why the guy’s not calling, one of the women says, “Maybe he forgot your hut number.” And then her other friend laughs and says, “Or maybe he got eaten by a lion.” The African women were outside their hut while the Asian women were in the mall.
Later in the movie there are two overweight African-American women explaining how a man can make you believe the break-up was your idea when it was really his, and their solution is just go on and eat some ribs and some other kind of “black” food. There were a couple of plump white women in the movie, and we meet them in the park speed walking. The subliminal message of the movies is the same: we haven’t progressed. We’re still wild, savage, lazy people if you believe what you see on the screen.
I like to laugh as much as the next person and I’m not so serious that I can’t laugh at myself; my problem is the lack of balance. Why does it seem like we are we always the butt of the joke? And even more disturbing, is why are we ok with this buffoonery that continues to pass itself off as entertainment in its various forms?
When I was in high school, I went on a cruise and we when we were in the Bahamas the native people asked us where we were from and when we said Chicago, they made shooting gestures with their hands saying, “Gangster, gangster.” We were high school seniors, and it was 1980 and yet people from another country still saw as parts of the 1920s gangster image associated with Chicago.
Fast forward to the present, and hip-hop reigns, and the images of us from hip-hop and other media is projected world wide, and how do you think we’re viewed? What we see is a one-dimensional negative image of who we are as black people because the world sees us as one and the same. The worst of us represents the best of us and we see this played out daily even as a black man sits in this nation’s highest office. We are no more monolithic than any other group of people, but the reality is, is that we’re viewed as such.
Who controls our image? Taking into account the pervasive nature of the music in the movies mentioned, I was wondering who was I laughing at and who was laughing at me? Too much of hip-hop and reality TV is nothing more than mindless, lewd, violent representations of everything that’s wrong in the black community that disguises itself as entertainment, and we laugh.
I’m sure that there are people who’d argue that there’s no difference between the two, but I beg to differ. If I offer myself as the butt of the joke, I’m giving you permission to laugh along with me because I’ve agreed to take part, but when you put me out there without my consent, you’re laughing at me, and that’s not the same thing. I can appreciate self-deprecating humor from most anyone, but being sucker punched isn’t funny; it hurts.