Are Comedies More Palatable for Black Folks?

October 23, 2008



A few months ago my friend Miriam and I were having a discussion about the then soon-to-be released film, The Secret Life of Bees.  At the time I had not yet read the book (which was fabulous by the way) and Miriam was describing the plot in a nutshell: Black life in the pre-civil rights South.  Our conversation took us to the topic of the portrayal of Black people in films.  Still upset that The Great Debaters was largely ignored by audiences, I asked, why is it that we  tend to skip over uplifting dramas and other “message movies” for the comedic ones?  Just how do we spend our dollars at the box office? So I did some digging and randomly picked Black movies released within the past couple of years.  Consider these opening weekend figures of courtesy of imdb.com:

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,  $16.2 million

The Great Debaters, $9.1 million

Akeelah and the Bee, $6 million

The Secret Life of Bees, $10.5 million

This Christmas, $17.9 million

ATL , $11.5 million

Madea’s Familiy Reunion, $30 million

Why Did I Get Married?, $21 million

Meet the Browns. $20 million

Talk to Me, $402,000

Norbit, $34 million

Pride, $1.4 million


And the winner is….Madea! A round of applause for the chittlin’ circuit!  Clearly, Tyler Perry is a force of nature and will be around for some time.  Though I have strong opinions about his satirical depictions of Black life I give him props for keeping his eye on the prize and marketing a successful brand.  The man knows what his viewers want.  But don’t jump up and down just yet.  Of course one must also consider the number of theatres the above films were released in when comparing the figures. 



So back to my conversation with Miriam.  In that discussion we concluded that slavery and Jim Crow movies are still difficult for Black people to watch.  (Raise your hand if you saw the Oprah-produced Beloved).  However, I suppose that the label “still difficult” insinuates that there was or ever will be a time when we won’t wince, hold our breath, or, let’s just keep it real-talk smack to the movie screen- when a white character uses the “N word”, ties a noose, or rounds up a posse of God-fearing, good ol’ boys.  We might as well pack our bags and teleport ourselves back to the gallows of the ships in the Middle Passage.  Though no white person has ever spit in my face or threatened to string me up by my neck doesn’t mean that these images don’t give me flashbacks of my own encounters with the more covert forms of racism and bigotry.  A little post traumatic stress, anyone?



In my quest to get to the root of the matter, I ran this conversation by another friend of mine who is in the performing arts business.  She suggested that comedies are more comfortable for us because we don’t have many genres to choose from.  Touche.  There’s something fishy going on when Hollywood execs tend to only finance “urban comedies”  (First Sunday) and “urban dramas” (Daddy’s Little Girls).  It made me think of a Spike Lee interview I saw while he was promoting The Miracle at St. Anna.  When asked why there was such a gap in between his films he stated that it is hard for him to get Hollywood to greenlight the types of projects that he wants to make.  I can’t remember his exact words but he alluded that Hollywood is eager to throw money at “coonery/buffoonery” projects rather than those with substance.  Things that make you go hmm….  My friend asked me a good question that I still can’t answer- where are our arthouse films?  Where are our Crouching Tigers and Hidden Dragons?  Why doesn’t Hollywood greenlight these types of projects for Black audiences?  Do they even exist.  I know they must.  If you have any ideas about this please let me know.



My personal feelings about Madea movies notwithstanding I can understand why my brothers and sisters flock to them.  Who wants to dredge up memories of whips and chains when we can release that tension through laughter?  Tyler Perry films are message movies about resilience and strength shown through the “lens” of family and religion.  The subject matter is serious but it is peppered with just the right amount of humor that is relatable to the Black hallelujahfied experiences of pain to purpose.  Madea does for the baby-boomer generation what Amistad and Rosewood couldn’t.  Just a thought.


One comment

  1. Well, it’s no secret of my utter contempt for Tyler Perry films. Actually, I take that back. I really struggle with this one. On the one hand, here is a black man who is making films about “positive” themes. However, I can’t overcome feeling completely slighted. All the characters are such extreme caricatures, the plots so predictable and almost identical, it almost can’t be called art…wait…this just in. It absolutely CANNOT be called art. His exposition is wince-worthy (“I mean, did you ever think we’d grow up to be doctors and lawyers?”). But, alas, he is doing it. He is employing Black actors. He is making films for and about Black folks. What could be wrong with that? I’ll tell you what. At what point will we start holding ourselves to higher standards?

    It’s the same gripe I have with mainstream rap music. You have the floor. People are listening. And, you mean to tell me, THAT is all you have to say? Booty butt, booty butt, booty butt cheeks? Really? Seriously?

    I somehow feel as long as our own people are making “art” that panders to our lowest levels of thought, what’s the motivation to see a “Great Debaters” when it comes along? Something that makes you think. Something to remind us of our greatness, and the enormous mountain which we’ve trudged over. I mean, your argument holds weight, but a film such as “Great debaters, which does focus on the racism they encountered, but ultimately how they overcame it, still was unsuccessful.

    It begs the question: Are we really that dumb? Would we really rather see “Soul Plane” than “Miracle at St. Anna?”.

    I honestly don’t know. Thank you for facilitating the dialogue, it must be had.

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