- Blacks: Scary, Out of Focus, and in the Back
As an addendum to my discussion with Benjamin Sutton about Get Him to the Greek, I wanted to address its treatment of race—and, in fact, commend it on its racial consciousness. We don’t see a lot of black people in studio comedies, especially brombusters, unless (a) they’re specifically made for the “Black Interest” section of the DVD store (cf. Death at a Funeral, anything by Tyler Perry) or (b) Craig Robinson is available.
Robinson, Apatow’s go-to African-American comic, showed up in the most recent multiplex “Laugh Riot!” Hot Tub Time Machine (Sutton vs. Stewart), and he did get a good joke about not being able to get a job in the 80s. But in the racist-minded cultural subconscious, blacks are virile big dicks, and so his main purpose was to subvert that stereotype—for Big Laughs!!—by being a cuckolded, subservient dude who cries during sex. From shame. It’s like he’s gay or something, but he’s also black, so it’s double funny.
In Greek, the black characters are still relegated to marginal roles, but director Nicholas Stoller at least proves conscious of the way comedies too often consign black characters to the role of facilitators for the whites. P. Diddy himself takes on the Robinson role here—since the character is a record-label honcho, that makes sense—and plays the ultimate facilitator: the Corporate Appeaser. But, as Diddy explains to Jonah Hill’s low-level employee what their role is with talent, he becomes offended by a stray remark: “are you calling me a house nigger?” Hill insists he was not calling him a house n-word, but the mere speaking of the phrase encourages the audience to realize that, in fact, black characters in Hollywood comedies often do play the house niggers.
The condescension with which blacks are treated in pop culture finds its ultimate expression in Aldous Snow’s “African Child,” a song, album, video and running joke. “I have crossed the mystic desert to snap pictures of the poor,” he sings, “I’ve invited them to brunch,” while in the video he hugs impoverished-looking black children amid guerilla warfare. (That Get Him to the Greek opens with shots of African fighters firing on one another makes a quick and hilarious point about the deficiency of politics in Hollywood comedies, as well as their inconsequentialness.)
“I was watching the news one day,” Snow explains, “and I saw footage about, uh, war, and I think it was in Darfur, or Rwanda, or Zimbabwe, or one of ’em, and I thought, ‘this isn’t right, is it?’ And I made some phone calls and it turns out, it isn’t.” It’s an easy (but funny) send-up of ignorant celebrities in a do-gooder Hollywood culture. But it’s also an effective comment on the pop culture exploitation of blacks, whether African or African-American.
The film’s best joke about it comes during a scene in which Hill scurries around Rockefeller Center before a large outdoor performance. He runs up to an African percussionist and asks him if he knows the lyrics to “African Child”; the drummer says that’s not his job—it’s just to wear the “Africa Face,” and his face changes in an instant, lighting up with a big dumb grin. Stoller might not integrate African-Americans into his pitched-at-white-America comedy, but he’s at least smart enough to point out that we too often expect the black characters to smile big. And stay out of the way.