By Dr Edson Burton
The BFI’s Comedy Blockbuster Season is a unique opportunity to celebrate the contribution of Black comedic performers. This short editorial will hopefully deepen that celebration by providing an insight into the continuities between past and present Black performance, how Black performance serves an important role in communal well being and offers too a lens through which one can observe societal change.
The protagonist of a traditional African American tale, Nehemiah is described is one of those slaves who is able to ‘avoid hard labour by keeping his master laughing most of the time.’ Nehemiah is sold by his exasperated owner to a David Wharton a slave owner with a reputation for exceptional cruelty. Wharton demands that he pick four hundred pounds of cotton to which Nehemiah replies,
“ ‘but ef Ah meks you laff, wont yu lemme off fo ‘terday.
Master Wharton who has never been known to laugh goes one better and ‘I won’t only let you off for today, but I’ll give you your freedom.”
Ah decla’, said Nehemiah ‘yuh sho’ is uh goodlookin’ Wharton.
I’m sorry I can’t say the same thing about you retorted Wharton.
Oh yes, Boss, yuh could, “ Nehemiah laughed out, “ yu could, ef yu tole ez big uh lie ez Ah did.”
Wharton could not help laughing at this; …and so Nehemiah got his freedom.”
Nehemiah in this tale recalls the archetypal trickster figures of African storytelling tradition such as the spider Kwaku Anansi. In West African folkloreAnansi is a cipher used on the one hand as a didactic device to illustrate the penalties for the worst human traits, pride, avarice, indolence – on the other as a symbol of human ingenuity in winning the respect of the Gods. The dual function of Anansi survived his importation into the Americas by enslaved Africans albeit with some significant alterations. The pantheon of Gods are lost in the memory of the English speaking colonies, the trickster no longer challenges the ultimate power of a deity. Instead in the context of the White dominated New World, during and post slavery, the trickster is pitched against the plantation owner, the ‘Boss’ the ‘Man.’ The plantation is no more but Black life remains dominated by structural racism, poverty and manifestations of White power. Nehemiah has no actual master but his freedom and destiny are controlled by The ‘Man.’ In this context he is a didactic lesson in how to survive even thrive using wit and cunning against White authority. Anyone vaguely familiar with African American trickster tales would also understand the trickster retains his African role as an example of poor moral practice. He is a cipher that reveals the penalties for pretensions, egotism and indolence.
The trickster is part of a body of oral history is passed down by storytellers, musicians, entertainers who in slavery and freedom have used these tales to entertain, to teach, to preach, to cope and to heal. As with any other folk tradition Black comic performers on stage and screen have drawn upon the heritage of folklore as passed down by past generations of performers. Just as in Nehemiah v David Wharton the Man is no match for the modern trickster as displayed by the Black protagonists in Stir Crazy (1980), Trading Places (1983), Jumping Jack Flash (1986) and most recently Blackkklansman (2018) to name but a few examples. Mirroring real life, the Black cinematic protagonist has the advantage that s/he knows whites, have had to observe whites from near and far whilst the same cannot be said in reverse. This knowledge allows the protagonist to triumph over White power.
The discrepancy between white perceptions of Blackness and Black realities remains the creative spark for Black satire. Crucially, the trickster is a conscious, deliberate, and self aware performer who manipulates whites by hiding behind racist tropes in order to fulfil their ultimate goal. As African-American comic Alvin Poussaint describes in slavery ‘there was the humour dating back to slavery which, essentially, was humour prepared for white people, to entertain them and play to their stereotypes, because that’s what they thought of us. And there was the more subtle kind, psychological of humour, that we used for each other.’
Black comic performers gained access to the screen by recreating the kind of humour Alvin describes, the humour with which white audiences felt comfortable – eyes rolling, indolent, literal and metaphorical ‘coons’ ‘minstrels’ jigga boos.’ It has been kept alive and sustained by comedy shows such as Amos & Andy, and, albeit not ostensibly comic the Blaxpolition genre.
Not confined to the UK one can see the impact and prevalence of this kind of humour in the early career of Britain’s first Black comedy star Charlie Williams with his frequent references to ‘Pakis’ ‘coons’ and niggers and in the early career of British comedy legend Lenny Henry who first appeared on British television in the Black and White Minstrel Show in 1975. It would be easy to critique the individual performers but their choices must be seen in the context of the racism of the time, the hegemony of White expectations & the narrow opportunities for Black performers to break into the film and television.
In Hollywood Shuffle (1987), CB4 (1993), and Bamboolzed (2000) we therefore identify the frustrations of the Black performer of being pushed to present white tropes. Bamboozled in particular is a warning to Black performers that the difference between becoming and performing a ‘coon’ is vast. By referencing both coon shows and hip hop the film forcefully drives the point that understanding the difference is still a matter of contemporary relevance.
To borrow Alvin Possaint’s distinction therefore there exists an internal’ Black comic tradition that celebrates albeit through humour the vivacity of Black community life. House Party (1990), Friday (1995) and Barbershop (2002) were part of a new wave of Black comedy on film made for Black audiences. But Black life on both sides of the Atlantic is not of course static and there are few better ways to trace the cultural, socio- economic shifts within Black communities than through Black comedy. Shows such as The Fosters (1977-1977), Desmond’s (1989-1994), The Real McCoy (1991-1996) and The Richard Blackwood Show (1991-2001) capture the identity interplay between first and second generation African and Caribbean Britains. One understands through these shows that Black British identity is a shifting dialogue between the Caribbean, Britain and the USA. Shows such as the eponymously named Little Miss Joceyln witness the increasing influence of African first and second migrants on Black British culture. Writer comedian and star of the series Jocelyn Jee Eisen drew upon her Nigerian heritage to explore new comedic identities. Likewise the Stephen K Amos Show (2010-2011) & Famalam (2017) celebrated an African British sensibility.
Jocelyn Gee is also part of a wider recognition of Black female comedy genius. Jocelyn was of course preceded by stars of the small screen such as Llewella Gideon and Judith Jacobs in sitcoms and the stand-ups such as Angie La Mar and Gina Yashere. These shows and performers have paved the way for the mainstream success of Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum (2015-). Farcical and frequently visceral these shows offer an alternative to the polarised identities imposed upon Black women within and outside their communities. US comedy Girls’ Trip (2017) brings to the big screen a celebration of Black female humanity and friendship through the kind of humour traditionally reserved for men. One might say that the Black female performer is doubly pioneering given that the heritage of Black performance – folklore, traditions, – rarely mention women as comedic agents
Our first event, Sorry to Bother You starts our season. Newly released Sorry to Bother You, the rarely screened Bamboozled, and TV drama Shoot the Messenger capture the power of satire to say that which we find uncomfortable. We celebrate the impact of Black British comedy with a special event featuring pilot episodes from much loved show The Real McCoy with special guests Leo Muhammad, Eddie Nestor and writer comedian John Simmit. Jumping Jack Flash and Girls’ Trip are among the movies that conclude our season in January. For details of each event and how to book follow Come the Revolution on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
We hope NO B/S! will encourage audiences to look behind the laughs at the role of Black comedy to challenge, heal and reveal much of what is wholesome and what is problematic in our transatlantic society
Dr Edson Burton is a writer, historian and founding member of Come the Revolution.