Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Are We There Yet, Blaxploitation, Friday, House of Payne, Huey, Ice Cube, John Witherspoon, Madea, Meet the Browns, Regina King, Riley, Spike Lee, Stepin Fetchit, The Boondocks, The N-Word, Tyler Perry, Winston Jerome
Dr. Cornel West has often asserted that the late, great Richard Pryor was the “freest” Black man who ever lived. Not that I disagree with the noted philosopher and leading public intellectual, but I would like to also add that cartoonist and satirist Aaron McGruder deserves honorable mention.
McGruder’s entertainment resumé has been decorated with numerous chalk outlines, laying waste to both individuals and institutions arguably out of step with what’s best for the African-American aggregate.
Anyone familiar with McGruder’s work knows that the The Boondocks is unabashed, unrelenting and unrepentant in its attempts to offer its creator’s viewpoint on everything from popular culture to political fodder. Whether you agree with McGruder’s approach often times determines whether you are a fan of his work, regardless of the point he strives to make.
McGruder’s work is akin to chitlins…either you really like them or you can’t even stand the thought of the smell. There’s no in-between and he likely revels in the visceral response he often evokes.
In the latest episode of The Boondocks, McGruder took aim at the Tyler Perry empire by way of
“Winston Jerome.” Stopping short of imitating Perry’s voice and likeness, McGruder lampooned the legacy of Perry in every way, even hinting at supposed unresolved homosexual issues which allegedly power Perry’s most popular character, “Madea.”
If McGruder is anything, he is consistent. His consistent effort in “putting hands on” the seemingly untouchable or immensely popular is probably unmatched. Perry has fast become a movie mogul in an entertainment world in which knows few of his color. Right or wrong, public criticism of him and/or his work is not acceptable in many African-American circles. Criticism of such lofty African-Americans is often dismissed has being rooted in jealousy or a “crabs-in-a-barrel” mentality; regardless of how factual and accurate the criticism just might be.
Don’t talk “crazy” about President Obama, don’t talk “mess” about Oprah and don’t talk “ish” about Tyler Perry. For many, they are simply above reproach.
Uh…no they’re not and yes you should when warranted.
As a matter of fact, McGruder has put his foot into the backside of all of the aforementioned over the course of his career.
In this particular instance, he has a point and it’s a good one (several actually).
At the same time, Mo’Kelly isn’t so sure that Aaron hadn’t already abrogated his moral authority to take anyone’s “Black card” anymore or is wise by throwing stones from his glass house of negative imagery.
Let Mo’Kelly digress momentarily…
For what it’s worth, can anyone describe the immense irony in the fact that one of Perry’s most vocal critics (outside of McGruder) is filmmaker Spike Lee?” That would be the same Lee whose groundbreaking films and vision as a opened the door for more Black voices and Black directors to be seen and thrive; names like Tyler Perry. If Tyler Perry has become a money-making monster in this business (and he has), some thanks must go to Dr. Spike Frankenstein who unwittingly helped create him. In the way that there probably is no Tiger Woods without Lee Elder…there’s probably no Tyler Perry without Spike Lee.
Such is the nature of the battle for the souls of Black folk. And speaking of The Souls of Black Folk, once upon a time it was W.E.B. Dubois who offered sharp criticism of Booker T. Washington. Langston Hughes’ artistic vision was roundly criticized by James Baldwin. Despite these truths, history had more than enough room to celebrate them individually and collectively.
In other words, the fight for the souls of Black folk didn’t begin
with Harriett Tubman and it didn’t end with Barack Obama taking his presidential oath. Let’s not lose sight of these facts. History will have ample room to celebrate all of these figures and their contributions in the coming generations, Aaron McGruder too.
But back to McGruder/Perry…
For some, the fact that Tyler Perry has built his empire on the back of a cross-dressing character with many features similar to the “Mammy” stereotype of yesteryear concerns many in the Black intelligentsia. Some have characterized Perry’s work as nothing more than “coonery” and “buffoonery.” In truth, it’s a fair criticism.
Yes, I said it…it’s a fair criticism.
There are real similarities between “Madea” and “Mammy” which can’t be denied. The shenanigans of the characters on programs like Meet the Browns evoke for some, comparisons to Stepin Fetchit.
Stepin Fetchit, not-so-coincidentally was the first Black millionaire actor…”Stepin Fetchit” was the stage name for Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. The fact that “Tyler” and “Lincoln” share the same surname is not where their similarities begin or end. The amassing of great fortunes while promulgating questionable images of African-Americans has managed to bring both their names together in discussions many times prior to this editorial and will continue to do so long afterward. It’s a reasonable discussion to be had. You may agree or disagree ultimately, but the historical similarities do bear mentioning and are worthy of discussion. No number of Black people Tyler Perry has managed to employ over the years mitigates these similarities or marginalizes those who take issue with the images Perry puts forth.
As I’ve said many times over the years…if the game of dominoes taught Mo’Kelly anything, it’s that not all money is good money. If Al Jolson, BET’s Comic View and HBO’s Def Comedy Jam taught Mo’Kelly anything, it’s that not all “funny” is good funny.
It does beg the question as to whether the exaltation of Tyler Perry comes at too high a cost. We must be willing to ask ourselves if Tyler Perry becoming an eventual billionaire is any different than when Bob Johnson became one thanks to BET? McGruder’s answer to the question (on both) is abundantly clear, yet are African-Americans willing to accept long and sustained criticism of Perry or might they eventually turn their backs on McGruder? Throwing hay-makers at BET as McGruder has done in the past could be considered “easy” as BET has long been universally accepted as the top villain in such discussions. The same can’t be said of Perry.
Perry is firmly entrenched and beloved within the church-going community from his original stage plays which paved the way for his eventual success in TV and movies. The love affair with Perry’s characters is both long and strong. Conversely, it’s always been easy to hate BET. The company and its executive leadership have always made it rather easy to do.
But as always in The Mo’Kelly Report…we strive to go deeper. Simply criticizing Perry is a superficial read of this issue. Let’s get to the substantive.
Where Spike Lee has it right is that all African-American filmmakers have a duty to put forth responsible imagery. Yes, ALL of them. We do not live in a post-racial America and we as African-Americans are not adequately or respectfully represented across video and audio media. Any irresponsibility on the part of a Lee, a Perry, a Singleton, a Fuqua or even an Ice Cube has a disproportionately negative effect on its target viewership.
It’s not fair, but it surely is the truth.
If Lee should view Tyler Perry with contempt, Spike should also remember his own similar missteps. Girl 6, the movie about the phone sex operator is not liable to end up on Turner Classic Films and did nothing to place Black women in a positive light. She’s Gotta Have It...anyone…anyone?
Bueller…Bueller? Oversexed Black woman stereotype?
She Hate Me, you know, the Spike Lee movie about the Black “buck” who impregnates 18 women at $10,000 a pop (no pun intended) for his “sperm donor business.”
Stereotypes? Coonery and buffoonery? Nobody was exactly twisting Lee’s arm to tell that “positive” African-American story in the 21st century.
That’s a double-edged sword cutting more than just Perry…let’s be intellectually honest and fair. Lee can make the argument that his body of work is balanced and offers a wider swath of African-American life, and it would be an accurate statement. Yet he too has willfully trumpeted obviously negative imagery along the way to make a dollar.
Which segues Mo’Kelly back to McGruder.
As for McGruder, let’s not forget his liberal…no, LIBERAL use of the N-word over the years. It’s not for Mo’Kelly to necessarily say one evil is worse than another, but Mo’Kelly will say “evil is evil.” Negative imagery is negative imagery. It’s difficult to rationalize it in either small doses or large. It’s too complicated to try to reconcile the supposed difference between someone offering negative imagery only “some” of the time as opposed to “most” of the time. Mo’Kelly didn’t know such a sliding scale existed.
Do we now grade “sell-outs” on a bell curve? That’s what it sounds like McGruder is saying we should do. In the end, Mo’Kelly isn’t high on the N-Word OR cross-dressing Black men when it comes down to discussions about positive representations of African-Americans.
So before we all run to jump on the McGruder bandwagon, let’s be wise enough to examine the fullness of history. History has shown that there’s enough room for all of these towering figures to coexist and we’ll celebrate each of their legacies long after they’re gone. History has also shown that none of these towering figures is above reproach and has done his questionable fair share. Yes, McGruder is an honorable mention for the freest Black man in the history of America, and his points about Tyler Perry are well-taken and in many ways valid. Let’s just not let McGruder and Lee get “brand new” on us either. You can’t hold someone else up to the light and not also have some of that same light shine on you too.
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Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Chuck D., Darius Rucker, Jesse Jackson, Public Enemy, Rissi Palmer, Spike Lee, Steve Harvey, Tyler Perry
That’s my man. I remember the first time my ears were exposed to the sounds of Public Enemy. It was fall, 1987…Mo’Kelly was a freshman at Georgetown University and hanging out with Ralph Lamb (now Saladin Ambar, professor of American race relations and political science at Rutgers University). We sat in his dorm room and listened to Public Enemy, BDP, X-Clan and argued over the best leather design for a “fresh” Africa medallion. If that weren’t enough, we even practiced mixing on the turntables with Saladin’s roommate Tracy Grant (now an author in his own right).
“Follow for now, power of the people, say,
Make a miracle, D., pump the lyrical
Black is back, all in, we’re gonna win.
Check it out…here we go again.”
- Chuck D. (Bring the Noise)
Rev. Jesse Jackson was preparing once again to shock the world with a second and even more successful presidential run. Director Spike Lee had just opened the door to an ensuing slew of African-American directors, thanks to his groundbreaking film She’s Gotta Have It the preceding year. From politics to film to music, there was a crescendo of consciousness in the African-American community; heretofore not seen in my generation. Mo’Kelly would hardly characterize this time as the second-coming of the Harlem Renaissance, but there are some parallels to be drawn.
“Black is back, all in we’re gonna win.”
That lyric has since always stuck with Mo’Kelly. I remember thinking and wondering at what time prior to 1987 Black was “in”…in a general or pop culture sense. So the phrase “Black is back” always struck Mo’Kelly as odd in the context of 1987.
Back? From where…from when…“win” what?
More than 20 years later, people still end phone conversations with “peace” a staple of the era, (although I have no idea where my many leather Africa medallions are these days). And more than 20 years later, that particular lyric traipsing from the lips of Chuck D. still rings in my memory.
In 2009 it would seem that one could more honestly argue, “Black is back.” Here’s what I mean…
The top TWO books on the New York Times Hardcover Advice bestseller list this week are by African-Americans, authored by Steve Harvey and Tony Dungy respectively.
Not fiction, but the Advice section. No disrespect to Eric Jerome Dickey intended.
Twenty-two years ago there never had been an African-American author atop any of the NY Times bestseller lists. The #1 movie in America, Madea Goes to Jail grossed 41 million in this its first weekend, with 1000 fewer screens than any other #1 of any week of any year. Tyler Perry’s material is about, for and by African-Americans. That’s not even counting the other NY Times #1 bestseller successes of both Tavis Smiley, The Covenant with Black America and Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life in recent years.
“Black is back.”
It’s very easy to trace a direct path between 1987 Spike Lee to 2009 Tyler Perry. It’s very easy to connect the dots between 1987 Jesse Jackson and 2009 Barack Obama.
Access…then change…then progress.
Twenty-two years ago there had never been an African-American country artist to DEBUT at the top of the country charts. With little effort someone could make the connection between Charley Pride and Darius Rucker or Dona Mason and rising starlet Rissi Palmer.
Access…then change…then progress.
But back to Chuck D.’s lyric…
“Black is back, all in, we’re gonna win.”
Granted, maybe Mo’Kelly is over-analyzing a simple lyric. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
We all know the civil rights phrase “keeping our eyes on the prize” but often times the definition of “the prize,” becomes cloudy. When we talk about “winning” in Chuck D.’s terms…what does that mean?
I would submit that winning the White House does not equal winning this race. There is a Black man in the White house and a Black city (New Orleans) still looking like an outhouse. NY Times bestsellers do not equate to winning this race. Black Supreme Court justice appointees surely don’t equate to crossing the finish line in first place. For enslaved peoples in the 19th century, the “prize” of emancipation only led to the evils of segregation. For those imprisoned by Jim Crow, the prize of ending “separate but equal” led to “together and unequal.”
You get the point, but back to 2009. “Black is back.”
It’s indisputable; for better or for worse, for reasons substantive or superficial, Black is the “in” thang these days.
Well, except for TV shows on CBS.
Other than that, Black is “in.” It will never be “in” within the Viacom family, let Mo’Kelly be clear on this fact. Viacom is the home of CBS, where no Black people live…and BET, where no self-respecting Black people live. The fact that they’re relatives in the same family should surprise absolutely no one. But in terms of the rest of the world, the appreciation of African-Americans and our contributions is at an all-time high.
The question remains as to how should “we” spend such social capital? It also begs the other question that if “Black is back” then surely it will go the way of all fads and temporal trends until its next “retro incarnation” in say…2029.
Was “the prize” getting a singular Black man in the White House or getting an aggregate Black people on equal footing in America? They are two separate and distinct goals and one doesn’t necessarily impact the other.
As we are set to exit African-American history month I’m encouraged by certain successes and equally disheartened by some failures. If we as African-Americans have achieved anything in the past 20 or so years it is access. Access is always the first step before change and change always precedes progress, if there is progress to be had. Remember change is inevitable but progress is optional.
Black may be “back” in 2009, African-American Oscar nominees are commonplace and Black congress people, ordinary occurrences.
But what is winning…what is now the prize? And shout out to Saladin, Public Enemy is still my favorite, and you’re still a Rebel without a Pause.
The Mo’Kelly Report is an entertainment journal with a political slant; published weekly at www.eurweb.com. It is meant to inform, infuse and incite meaningful discourse…as well as entertain. The Mo’Kelly Report is syndicated by Blogburst. For more Mo’Kelly, http://mokellyreport.wordpress.com. Mo’Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he welcomes all commentary.
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