Watermelon Man: America's Long-Running Minstrel Show

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Watermelon Man: America's Long-Running Minstrel Show

Internalized racism has insidiously become America's primary neurosis. Detroit Metro Times' Larry Gabriel argues that Spike Lee's new film, Bamboozled, which explores black minstrelsy as American entertainment, may be the perfect opening for much-needed dialogue on the state of race in America.

Few stereotypes have worked to denigrate a people as well as the Minstrel, white actors who blackened their faces to portray blacks as buffoonish, ignorant characters. These characters first appeared in the 1840s, but the most famous example of blackface was Amos n' Andy, a 1940s-era slapstick duo who used outlandish accents and embarked on doomed schemes to strike it rich. At first glance, Amos and Andy seems like a historic artifact. But Gabriel argues that 'these minstrels...created a narrow and demeaning set of character types that still live with us today.'

The joy white folks found at the expense of 'black' actors playing the fool--'the Sambo-Tar Baby-pickaninny-grinning-watermelon eating figures,' as Gabriel describes them, is what kept those symbols recurring in movies, while locking black performers out of complex roles. Was J.J. 'Dynomite' Walker of Good Times really anything more than a minstrel? Did Nell Carter or Esther Rolle ever play memorable characters that weren't 'mammies?' Lee even finds the minstrel operating in pop music: 'Gangsta videos are the embodiment of the 21st century minstrel show.'

Lee pushes these stereotypes to center stage in Bamboozled, when a black cable network executive, in an attempt to get fired, produces a traditional blackface minstrel show that shockingly becomes a runaway hit. What follows touches on almost every Jim Crow stereotype in the medicine chest, including 'a chorus of dancers named Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Jungle Bunny, Rastus, Topsy and Lil' nigger Jim.' Lee's juxtaposition of these disturbing images may just be enough to get tongues wagging.
--Amanda Luker
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RELATED: For further reading on the history and the future of black film in America, inside Hollywood and out, check out LA Weekly's feature series 'Black Film Now.' Articles include information on black film resources, racism in the Hollywood guilds, a look at why Harlem Renaissance performers never made it in Hollywood, and a conversation with four black women filmmakers.
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puria Daniels
3/13/2008 12:00:00 AM

Interseting Topics!!!!!!!!!

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