Toward the end of recent hit Pineapple Express there’s a joke that unintentionally sums up the anxiety of racial and cultural influence that runs through this film... and so many comedies of the last decade similarly geared toward white audiences. Danny McBride plays an inept white trash dope dealer who’s been shot in the gut and left to die in his own apartment. When fellow stoner Seth Rogen comes by, he finds McBride slumped on the bathroom floor, sending himself off to the next world by listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s plaintive ‘Tha Crossroads’. Soon thereafter, McBride introduces Rogen to his arsenal of guns, cocking one, and in a pure deadpan, intoning: “Thug life.”
Dissecting a joke always kills it, but when contemporary comedy’s ubiquitous white-boys-gone-gangsta spectacle is placed under the microscope, a strange cultural phenomenon is necessarily revealed. Yes, the shameful American institution of the minstrel show is alive and well, barely hidden behind a mask of self-deprecation. A product of the ascendance of hip-hop as the dominant cultural currency in a youth-driven consumer society (dating from the early 90s suburban breakthrough of gangsta rap), modern minstrelsy has been slowly forming around a basic set of punchlines and sight gags — the most common involving a white person busting a move or rhyming along to something like ‘Baby Got Back’. The bait and switch? Afraid of being perceived as racist but unable to resist appropriating the hardcore street cred of hip-hop culture, whites effectively neuter that same culture by copping superficial style over subversive content, their self-conscious guilt over the act obscuring any deeper consideration of its history or roots.
Riding the mid-90s wave was a hip little film called Pulp Fiction. It’s dicey to assign a sea change to a single movie, but there’s no overstating the monumental influence of Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic consecration of the country’s new racial geography. Catering to a post-Rodney King, post-LA Riots depoliticization of race relations — when the violent anger of Straight Outta Compton became the anthemic self-congratulation of The Chronic — Pulp Fiction arrived like the golden calf to a nation wanting its black culture delivered (and neutralized) via kitsch and insincerity. ‘Jungle Boogie,’ Samuel L. Jackson’s afro and — in an extremely significant directorial choice — Tarantino himself nonchalantly spouting the n-word all signaled the latest, and to that point most powerful, domestication of African-Americans’ distinct self-expression and protest, the transforming of one race’s culture into the property of whoever could best recontextualize it with the hippest and most cynical cachet.
The joke, at least in certain comedies, once shot for enlightened progressiveness, or at least mordant bite. A decade ago, for example, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth sported baggy pants and a ski cap while rapping about “nappy dugouts,” but the character transcended freakishness, restoring his political dignity by tapping into the rebellious and socially conscious legacy of hip-hop. In 1999, Office Space’s cubicle-enslaved slackers reasserted their manhood by pretending playa, but amidst the film’s minstrelsy was a caustic piece of criticism (partially self-directed), when a character named Michael Bolton — the name alone evokes hopeless Caucasianess — raps along with the Geto Boys’ Scarface in his traffic-jammed Honda. He blissfully unleashes his corporation-repressed id... until an African-American man walks by, causing Bolton (played by David Herman) to crawl back into his shell, turn down the volume, and lock his door. Bolton’s mixture of embarrassment and fear in the presence of an actual black person perfectly points up whitey’s hypocrisy — completely at ease feigning knowledge of how the other half lives, unless the other half happens to look him in the eye.
But while white-produced film comedies have become increasingly self-deprecating, the joke has devolved rapidly to the point where, exclusive of the problematic politics behind it, the mere act of whites imitating blacks is expected to be an automatic guffaw-inducer. The line between those in on the joke and those outside has been disturbingly blurred. A pathetic ad currently playing on WFAN has a presumably white announcer selling this pitch: “Groovy! Dy-no-MITE! Right on! These are a few things people are saying about New York Sports Club!” In the square world it’s hardly an unrepresentative aberration. Yet “in-the-know” icons like Rushmore and Juno feature white characters brandishing lines like “Bust a cap in yo’ ass” or “Homeskillet” with just the thinnest layer of sarcasm to prove they’re really mocking racial mimicry, not enacting it.
Nobody has been as big a wannabe as crowned genius Judd Apatow: almost every film bearing the producer/writer/director’s imprint is founded on the ostensibly de facto uproarious sight of white dudes trying to act like black guys. Apatow never questions his dudes’ minstrelsy — appropriation instead occasions comfortable, superior laughs. Knocked Up’s opening montage proudly displays a bunch of buds getting down to Wu-Tang, their lifestyle mindlessly valorized as “boys will be boys” hi-jinks to a bumpin’ beat. And with its silhouetted opening and wall-to-wall funk soundtrack, Superbad’s aesthetic bassline is pure blaxploitation chic, while the dialogue reinforces ironic ebonics: “Hey, gangstas,” “Get crunked,” “Fo’ sho,” “Break yo self, foo’!” Instead of colliding cultures to place their similarities and differences in humorous relief, Apatow’s appropriation functions as a one-way street, propping up his white characters’ adorable cool even as black characters exist as mere tokens.
Tropic Thunder has received almost unanimous acclaim for cleverly spoofing extreme Method acting, character imperialism (the need for white actors to portray every race and creed to the exclusion of actors actually of those races and creeds) and, of course, whites biting black rhymes, all contained in Robert Downey Jr.’s singular performance as a vainglorious Aussie bad boy Academy Award fave outdoing the competition by using a skin pigmentation procedure to make him look (and, apparently, act) like an African-American. Yet Tropic’s jab at privileged racial imitation is offset by Tom Cruise’s turn as a caricature of a cutthroat Jewish Hollywood power producer. Cruise, done up in what Manhola Dargis accurately describes as “Jewface,” not once but twice — that’s how hilarious this joke is — busts a move to T-Pain’s ‘Low’. Whereas Downey’s character gives cultural appropriation an original, subversive twist, Cruise’s is the same old easy comedic out that fails to go beyond a safe ordering of racial assumptions and stereotypes.
It could be argued that these comedies don’t pretend to represent all of black culture, and that the strand of black culture they do represent — as well as the prism of white envy through which it’s represented — has long been ripe for parody. And, if one wants to take up the art-as-mirror stance, such entitlement is in a sense reflective of a cross-pollinated society where white people daily adopt black culture while excusing themselves from doing so with a great, showy wink. The dilemma is that this is virtually all that is represented of black culture in films not aimed at black audiences, and that’s what makes the modern minstrel show so pernicious. Portraying black culture as only important enough to serve as a joke, and portraying white “appreciation” of black culture as a condescending lark, the complex cultural divide between the races — even in this age of Obama and the “post-race” American society he tenuously points to — is acknowledged only unconsciously as a paralyzing specter and never as rich fodder for incisive, funny criticism to counter the stagnant blackface-in-disguise we’ve been repeatedly, unimaginatively offered for far too long.