Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son–Martin Lawrence and Brandon Jackon adding to our collective self-loathing?

Posted: February 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

From Prof. Chambers

  

Slow your roll… we need mindless comedy, Aesop fable-like melodrama…cause times’re bad and gettin’ badder.

 That’s response from many black folks whenever critics try to staple politico-cultural wrapping  our society’s apparent loathing (even self-loathing) of black women onto entertainment. There’s a tempest roiling on social media, Web articles and blogs where this notion, real or imagined, of how both white Hollywood and our black auteurs  are doing damage to both black women and men. Compounding the acrimony is that this argument’s taking place against the current backdrop of conservative politics, about which many argue are a cloak for dragging us back to the bad ole days of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. So we fight over Gabby, Halle, Mo’Nique and the entire female cast of Tyler Perry’s palpably bowdlerized version of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide, living foul and tortured foully. And yet we giggle at black men wearing bras and skirts and getting paid millions for it. A creepy parody of Black Swan’s poster heralds the return of “Madea” this spring, producing virtual gasps on Twitter and Facebook that have likely swamped the old-school watercooler shade-throwing when Eddie Murphy’s unveiled “Rasputia” in Norbit. On February 18, Hollywood awards fans with the return of obese, down-home  Hattie Mae Pierce (you don’t have to be a film scholar or sociologist to parse the symbolism in that name) in Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.

The trouble is, Rasputia’s indeed connected to Madea, Madea to Mary Lee Johnston (Mo’Nique), Mary Lee  to Hattie Mae (and to Hattie Mae’s “granddaughter,” Brandon T. Jackson as “Charmaine.”)  We refuse to admit being herded, dumbed and numbed when times are bad and gettin’ badder and attention spans shorten daily. And with media consolidation, fewer choices, more money funding these last-common-denominator projects, this content is redefining us to ourselves in this society, in these scary times. More frightening, perhaps, is that its defining us to others, irrespective of who’s creating it: Tyler Perry, or the white producers who greenlight such films.

 Big Mommas was not screened for critics. Insiders know that’s code for “bad.”  But who cares what elitist critics say? Big Momma’s House (2000) earned $117.5 million (domestic). Big Momma’s House 2 (2006) made $70.1 million, and another $70 million foreign (you could fill volumes on studying foreign images and stereotypes of African Americans – note Japan’s use of Barack Obama to sell fried chicken). 2011’s Big Mommas is set in a fictional women’s college for the arts, with cheerleader-like white girls making up the majority of the student body—thus giving Hattie Mae and Charmaine a chance to school these ladies in hipness, and, of course giving the audience another obligatory white chick writhe & wiggle sequence. The writers, producers and director are white. That may explain how one of the most nettlesome real life issues in the black community—father-son relations—becomes comedy in drag.

Famously commenting to Oprah Winfrey on her show several years ago, Dave Chappelle recounted how white producers pressured him to dress in drag with Martin Lawrence and cited to him how much his pensiveness was costing in delays; producer-director John Singleton complained “[I]f that’s the only types of images they’re seeing [“family” audiences seeing black men portraying women], how is that informing upon Black men in America? It’s as if all we can do is make people laugh and play basketball.” Historians tell us that the most highly paid black actors in minstrel shows where the wise-cracking men in drag, forerunners to “Sapphire” in the Amos ‘n Andy radio shows. Sapphire—the cruel, always complaining sistah—is but now fully entrenched as an entertainment trope. Now comes Brandon T. Jackson, who shined in Roll Bounce and almost stole Tropic Thunder away from Robert Downey, Jr. donning  a dress and fake brown boobs. And now perhaps we’ll see Brandon’s star rising in Hollywood—the way we see Denzel. But we don’t see enough  of Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeffrey Wright. Terrence Howard and others are off the grid unless they adhere to the “dangerous or deranged black man” trope. But then again, producers can always insist on a rapper in that role. Consider this: despite his crossover appeal, sex appeal and premier acting chops, a cult following from The Wire and BBC’s MI-5 and Luther, producers removed Idris Elba from coveted role of James Patterson’s “Alex Cross” character, made famous by Morgan Freeman, replacing him with Tyler Perry because, in the words of a white producer, Perry is a “phenomenon.”

With clowns front and center, and leading men invisible, where does that leave black women in film? Invisible, too—unless they’re playing dysfunctional roles? Perhaps. But it’s more insidious than that. Black women are disappearing, to be replaced, like Elba, by men playing women. In Big Mommas, Brandon T. Jackson literally takes a lead young black female role. Silly, exaggerated, yes— but in essence that’s what happening. Professor Kristol Brent Zook, commenting on NPR about Eddie Murphy’s Rasputia a couple of years ago, said, “[I]s she [the black matriarch/mammie trope] so unfeminine and animalistic, this dark-skinned thing, so emasculating to the male ego that no sane black man could possibly want her? It’s also as though the Murphy brothers [Eddie and Charlie] were unaware that more than 80 percent of black women are either overweight or obese and that this too is the cause of suffering on an epidemic scale from type two diabetes to high blood pressure to heart failure to heart failure and early strokes.”

Her question was rhetorical. Of course Eddie Murphy knew the horrific past and hurtful present.  But tropes are tropes because they work and have worked for most of this nation’s cultural history, no matter how hurtful to black women, or men. Audiences want them. They are easy. Easy is less expensive than complex, whether in news or entertainment. Producers give us what we want.

Wait—even black women want to see an evil, fat, hypersexual Rasputia? They want to see their stories disappear into Tyler’s or Martin’s—now Brandon’s—latex fat-suit? Ponder this as metaphor: MSDramaTV’s interview with Radio One/TV One’s mogul Cathy Hughes has been churning online. Ms. Hughes literally labels Precious, and Monster’s Ball garbage…yet gushes, “Tyler Perry has done a miraculous job of portraying black folks. Perhaps that’s one person who’s gotten rich purveying tripe and trope giving props to another, the way one CEO’s not going to disparage the goose that laid an industry’s golden egg.

Maybe African Americans can’t control what’s greenlit in Hollywood; interestingly, Brandon Jackson’s Tropic Thunder castmate Tom Cruise mesmerized audiences with a spectacular yet uncomfortable, stereotypical parody: producer Les Grossman. There are less cartoonish Les Grossmans defining our images in the mass media, and mass media defines our lives, our jobs, our politics in the 21st Century.  At least we can influence what Cathy Hughes and Tyler Perry produce, or help Martin, and hopefully, Brandon T. Adams, get roles that don’t implicate these pernicious tropes: black men in body suits playing up female obesity, hypersexuality, hostility and “mammie stereotypes.  Indeed, as we approach Oscar® time, it should be noted that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis became big stars, in drag, in the classic Some Like it Hot. Don’t get the comparison to Martin Lawrence and Brandon T. Adams twisted. White people—white women—don’t share our hurtful past and its reflection in culture. Marylin Monroe was the real star of that movie, not men playing women. Besides, Some Like it Hot’s a much better crafted movie than Big Mommas. It’s not a matter of taste. It’s a matter of recognizing craft. That’s why Mo’Nique won awards, no matter what we feel about the image.  We need to learn how to spot the difference. In the meantime, consider what a commenter on Back Stage Blog noted about “Madea,” as metaphor for these issues of black women’s self-image,  media stereotypes and media profits chastened: “Y’all shoulda stopped [Tyler Perry] when he came out in that first dress. Now look at him. Gone. Y’all laughed at him when one of y’all should a been getting’ in his a–.”

It might be too late for that, but maybe can we stay home from Big Mommas.

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Comments
  1. mine says:

    this is just more fuel on the fire in the media campaign to destroy the black female image, to use horrendous propoganda to make black women seem masculine or de-feminized, ugly, fat, aggressive and violent. this is an all out evil smear tactic being waged on black women.

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