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Hasn’t the One Race Joke been done by now?

June 27, 2013

I despise black comedies. Not dark humour – I do like that. That bit in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s character accidentally shot someone in the face had me in such hysterics that, had I not been alone, I might now have a reputation for being a psychopath.

No, what I’m referring to is comedy films which work around the entire premise that their characters are black and black people are *gasp* not white people. Particularly irksome are the comparisons, where you’ve got a white guy and you’ve got a black guy and their differences are being explored for the amusement of the viewer.

Only, one is not amused. One is greatly wearied. Every joke seems to relate back to fact that “he’s white and he’s black” as if our protagonists are children fighting because one prefers chocolate and the other vanilla, so they can’t be friends any more.

Dramas about racial differences can be powerful and historically important. Period dramas such as Resting Place, social dramas such as Boyz n the Hood and courtroom dramas like A Time to Kill all explore the issues surrounding inequality and prejudice sensitively.

The problem with their comedic counterpart is that they are a clichéd mess – we’ve heard all those race jokes before and they don’t get any fresher. The characters come across as shallow and one-dimensional, not worth empathising with.

The mystery is the thinking that goes behind it: ‘Let’s make insulting generalisations about a minority and counteract it by having the minority do the exact same thing back!” The reason it doesn’t work better when you reverse the roles so that the white person is the underdog or on the receiving end of racial prejudice is because it is still a race joke and thus stale.

It shouldn’t make a difference who is on the receiving end; it’s all born out of the same backward thinking. If there is a moral message, you can bet it’ll be something blindingly obvious, like: “Don’t be a racist. Racism is bad.”

“It’s fine as long as it’s satirical,” you say. But what difference does it make if it’s a satire or not when satire can be mistaken for genuine opinion? It amounts to the same thing; if it is annoying to hear as a real life point of view, it is annoying to hear as a fictional one as well.  I’m just reminded of how many idiots really do exist. That’s not what I want when I’m watching a comedy.

Recall Die Hard, Die Hard 2 and Die Hard: With a Vengeance. Those were decent enough thrillers in their own right; they had a formula and a style. Samuel L. Jackson’s addition to the third instalment should have been a cause for celebration, seeing as he is a fine actor who has coincidentally been in two of the films I’ve already mentioned.

Disappointingly, Die Hard: With a Vengeance is kind of a buddy movie – you know, those films where a mismatched pair work out their differences and become friends, usually whilst confined to a speeding car. The tedium of the buddy movie is exacerbated by the fact that the main rift between our two leads is caused by the most mundane of things; one’s black, one’s white.

Die Hard, you’re a hard film! The clue is in the title! There was never any reason for you to try and boost your coolness by jumping on the already overstuffed bandwagon. Now when it finally flips over and crashes, you’ll capsize with it and land on the hard, cold ground, weeping because you thought you had nice friends who wouldn’t lead you astray.

That’s racial humour, for you. It’s old and cranky and reminds you of Bernard Manning and Chris Rock, neither of whom seem to have been able to form a sentence that didn’t start with the words “If a black man does / doesn’t do X…” Interesting to think that they came from completely opposite standpoints, yet it all ends with the same joke.

Next time, we should flatly refuse to crack a smile and just look coldly and blankly at the television screen until our collective murderous gaze kills all lasting vestiges of race-based humour, the stink of which still floats malevolently over decent comedies and thrillers.


From → Media Analysis

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