Friday, March 21, 2008

Boyz in the Hood Who Would Be Girls

Salon has one of their typically frustrating articles that pick up a hot topic, but don't go near deep enough to fully examine the many facets of the issue.

In this case, ther writer is talking about the mainstream prevalence of black comedians in drag, (Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence...)

Apparently not all black entertainers are amused. Chris Singleton and Dave Chapelle are cited as examples of celebrities who are outspoken about their opposition to the practice.

The article touches just briefly on the uncomfortable subject of gay acceptance in the black community, but then takes a sharp turn into analysis of black drag in relation to the minstrel tradition.

The worst type of black drag pays insufficient attention to the
humanity of black women. Wilson, by contrast, redeemed his garishly clad soul-sister Geraldine by making sure she always came out on top, especially in opposition to the church and in subverting machismo -- she even turned the king of braggadocio, Muhammad Ali, into a shrinking violet. The devil may have made Geraldine buy that dress, but she chastened her minister husband by reminding
him that the Evil One also kept him employed.

For his part, ( Tyler)Perry one-ups Geraldine by adding a bevy of down-home aphorisms to his portrayal of Madea. He also bolsters the character's complexity in his movies with a cast that counters her irreverence with melodrama. Ella, Madea's black female sidekick played by Cassie Davis, also helps to legitimize the character's status as a black woman. Not only is the joke never on Madea, but her tendency to whip out a pistol or two when things get out of hand
establishes her dominance over her home life. What makes Geraldine and Madea rise above caricature is that Wilson and Perry keep the audience on their side despite their characters' ridiculous behavior, always increasing their credibility as characters -- though not so much as women. Clearly, no one else can play Madea, but it's tantalizing to wonder how differently her role would read if Perry cast an actual black woman in it.

What Chappelle and Singleton may miss out on by refusing to
pimp those pumps is the dangerous fun of performing outside the constraints of race and gender. The desire to inhabit the lives and bodies of others doesn't necessarily make you a racist any more than sporting a double-D cup makes a man love men. Often it is inspired by a sense of play, and sometimes it is meant to increase understanding. Actors and writers, especially novelists, frequently do it (with words) to serve progressive political ends -- solo performers Danny Hoch and Anna Deavere Smith frequently channel characters regardless of ethnicity or sex.

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