Watermelon Man: America’s Long-Running Minstrel Show

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
Go there>>

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