Some Disjointed Thoughts on Blackface, ‘Coonery,’ and Hip Hop Fogeyism.

I’m probably gonna get pilloried for this by some folks, but I don’t care much for Spike Lee. Yeah, he’s talented and a pioneer and Do The Right Thing rightly deserves the praise it’s accorded. But the quality of his work varies too wildly, there’s a weird misogynistic streak in many of his films, and he’s way too hamfisted a lot of the time. (His endings are particularly egregious.)

That last bit is especially true of Bamboozled. Up until the inexecrable Crash and 2007’s putrid Angelina Jolie vehicle* Wanted, it was almost certainly the most supremely shitty movie I’d ever paid money to see.**

There are a lot of reasons that movie didn’t work — yes, Damon Wayans does speak that way for the entire film — but Bamboozled‘s most insurmountable shortcoming was its central device: the director’s employment of blackface. This is a lazy move, and sort of like comparing a political opponent’s policy prescriptions to Nazism; useful in getting the people already on your side to whoop and amen, but toxic to any discourse with the unconvinced. What Spike was trying to say (I think?) is that black folks play a major role in dehumanizing media portrayals of black life/lives. Fine. That’s a little simplistic and broad, but okay. That idea could be a jumping-off point for an interesting conversation. But Spike, as always, prefers to kill his ants with sledgehammers, and so we get a media critique featuring black tap dancers in blackface before rabid fans who are also in blackface  and an oleaginous white TV exec who enjoys emasculating his black underlings. (Also, people feel guilty and get shot at the end.)

This is too much even for Spike, which makes me think that the near-constant presence of blackface in Bamboozled just sets the movie’s baseline for provocation so absurdly high that the volume on every other dramatic element in it had to be turned up to 10 so as to not be completely drowned out.

Back in May, Spike even put a name to his charges about regressive black imagery: Tyler Perry.

Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors, but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery. I know it’s making a lot of money and breaking records, but we can do better. … I am a huge basketball fan, and when I watch the games on TNT, I see these two ads for these two shows (Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne”), and I am scratching my head. We got a black president, and we going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat?

This is a charge often leveled at Perry, but any closer examination reveals how ill-fitting that label is — particularly the Making Us Look Bad In Front of White Folks component. Perry has built his name and fortune by largely eschewing white audiences and approval; his fanbase was once exclusively black, and after the success of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, it’s still overwhelmingly so. Perry’s works are broad and bawdy, sure, but they’re also moralistic and emphasize the importance of family. I’m no Perry fan — he shares Spike’s aversion to subtlety and his messaging around gender is often pretty gross — but the “coon” epithet as it applies to Perry always struck me as less about the racial implications of his oeuvre and more about the perceptions about the role of class in its consumption.

”Tyler Perry understands that much of his audience is African-American women — the most ignored group in Hollywood — so he’s doing movies that speak to them,” Bogle says. ”You could see these films as parables or fables. There’s a black prince figure who shows up for black women who’ve been frustrated, unhappy, or abused.” That’s the real reason critics don’t like Perry’s movies, says Nelson George: They’re made for churchgoing, working-class black women, not urban hipsters (or tenured professors). ”Tyler Perry speaks to a constituency that is not cool,” George says. ”There’s nothing cutting-edge about the people who like Tyler Perry. So, for a lot of other people, it’s like, ‘What is this thing that’s representing black people all over the world? I don’t like it. It doesn’t represent me.”’

It’s really, really difficult to extricate social location from charges  of “coonery.” It’s a cousin of “ghetto” in a way — an epithet about propriety cloaked in ostensible concern about racial uplift. And its use raises some interesting questions about which stories about black lives deserve to be told.

Which brings us to this “PSA” that was released last week:

First, let’s note the delicious irony of a millionaire rapper who has been on a major label since his teenage years — and whose hits include “You Owe Me” and “Oochie Wally“—  criticizing big corporations for ruining hip-hop by putting out idiotic, insulting music. If you already believe Nas’ and Nick Cannon’s (!) bizarre assertion that hip-hop — the dominant culture of youth expression on the planet — is dangerously imperiled, then it doesn’t much matter who or what exactly they’re criticizing. Those minstrels could be stand-ins for any rapper you wanted them to be, which makes this a pretty useless critique. Sort of like Bamboozled.

A lot of this is fogeying on the part of Nas, who is creeping into middle age and clearly frustrated with a musical form that’s changed dramatically since he first became a practitioner/listener. But he’s just doing what a lot of oldheads do, installing themselves  as sage arbiters and policing their realms for affronts to purity/authenticity. (Think John Wooden’s deep-seated dislike of the slam dunk.) This tendency toward tut-tutting is especially pronounced in hip-hop, where authenticity is currency and everyone is clamoring for some romanticized bygone days, even though the people from those bygone days were waxing nostalgic themselves. On his stellar album from 13 years ago, DJ Shadow produced a track called “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in ’96” (punchline:”… it’s the money.“) Presumably, he wanted a return to 1993, when the Lords of the Underground lamented the ascendance of radio-friendly (and apparently insufficiently masculine) existential threats to hip-hop like P.M. Dawn and Me Phi Me in “Keep it Underground.” Or maybe it was ’92, when EPMD warned the music industry to “Keep the Crossover”? I suppose they were lamenting the “realer” days of the mid-1980s.

*Is there any other kind?

** More evidence of the Pinkett-Berry effect at work?



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Molly

    Spike Lee has been phoning it in since “She’s Gotta Have It”

  • Scipio Africanus

    I guess I’m the only one who really liked the end of Mo Better Blues, huh?

    *tries to get Cynda-Williams-in-1990 off the brain*

    As far as Hip-Hop, it’s a youth music, unlike most other forms of popular music. I might even go so far as to say it’s a bit of a “kid’s” music, in the sense of adolescents. Rappers have always had the sense of being characters like you find in wrestling or comic books – many of them don’t use their government names, almost of none of them do, and there’s always been a history of fantastical storytelling (the literal meaning of the word fabulous.) The thing is, fans adn practicioners of Hip-Hop haven’t really gotten that memo. In the 30 yeasr of recorded Hip-Hop, adn the roughly 5 yeasr of pre-recorded Hip-Hop before that, no one seemed to realize thsi form of music was different for these reasons.

    That’s where the fogeyism comes from – not realizing that today’s 9 and 10 year olds will be defining what’s hot with this music in 5 to 7 years’ time. Then, when it happens, looking around for other guiding examples and coming up with nothing that helps you figure out what the answer to the problem is.

    Fogeys (I’m one myself) wind up trying to force themselves to listen to teh current stuff, trying to listen to the mostly derivative adn generally whack current underground/internet/hipster rap scene, strictly listening to classic stuff, or leaving Hip-Hop altogether.

    There’s littel shameful in fogeyism vis-a-vis Hip-Hop – it’s unavoidable for most.

  • Scipio Africanus

    He phoned in Do the Right Thing? He phoned in Malcolm X?

  • Classic example of this – hip hop that samples….older hip hop. Lol. I;ll be talking to students or clients and they’ll be all amped like oh I know who did that song first! And then when I say “well that song was also sampled from another song” and then name some R&B/ Rock/ Soul song from the 90’s (never mind the 70’s or 80’s) I get the blank face and “Huh?”.
    I know I’m getting older. Nas needs to move on through them Kubler-Ross stages and get to acceptance. Right now he still seems mired in denial.

  • This is really, really, REALLY right on. I personally found the Nas/Cannon particularly frustrating and even repulsive: frustrating because without a proper historical backdrop, the message will either fall on deaf ears (the general public) or be scoffed at by us who know better, and repulsive given Cannon’s problematic views on race in hip hop (see: his blog post blasting Em, which I thought was weaksauce).

    Besides specifics, what bothers me most about the use of blackface in these satires, and references to minstrelsy more generally, is the ahistorical way they are presented. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people that read and comment here at PB are aware of white people using blackface for their Halloween costumes and “Ghetto” themed parties. The thing is, someone watching the so-called PSA would never make the connection between Cannon’s shucking to both the historical legacy and use of minstrel shows, as well as their own actions darkening their faces for laughs at a party. Many many many non-black people (and a lot of black folks too) have no idea where black face comes from, and the PSA doesn’t make it any clearer. As G.D. says, it just comes off as a grip with purity/authenticity.

    Like far too much of Nas’ recent schtick, it seems like he achieves more shock value than actual substance. And damnit if that doesn’t dilute what could have been an important point about contemporary hip hop.

  • But like Jeremy said below, it’s not as if there’s anything substantial in Nas’s criticism. It’s basically “hip-hop is wack and regressive now.”

  • I agree with G.D. on this one–what’s the ultimate message? That hip hop has become a modern day minstrel show (sidebar – Little Brother already said this in album-title form, among others along the way) in which black artists are merely trafficking in age old stereotypes? Well, that’s what the blackface connotes. And what does shucking and jiving even mean in this context? Who are we/they shucking for, and why? Of course, we here at PB can make some conclusions, but none of which are actually addressed in/with the video. It does very little; it’s analytically vacant.

  • i’ve actually never seen Nick Cannon’s blog entry on Em. I’ll go look for it now. (blackink and i were discussing the whole diss track last week. thoughts?)

  • *ahem* I don’t think you’re accurately representing my position on the SB/Ice T beef. I did fully consider the merits of Ice T’s complaints, and addressed them (and his misguided approach to conveying them) in detail.. if you disagreed you disagreed, but to suggest I just called Ice T an old fogey and never addressed the substance of his beef just ain’t true.

    My take on “fogeyism” is not the same as GD’s here. IMO the last part dismisses our generation’s laments too a bit easily (tho it’s a great post as usual). The fact that such complaints trace from today to the early 90s and beyond is not necessarily proof that they are irrational or without merit. It could just as easily be taken as evidence that we were right 20 years ago, and the trends we noted back then have continued unabated ever since! But the truth is somewhere in the middle, I think.

    BTW I think that Nick Cannon/Nas/Affion Crockett video is actually several years old, but was just re-posted recently? For whatever that’s worth.

    And on the Worst Movie Evar issue, I’m going to assume you haven’t seen Miracle at St. Anna yet, lol

  • here’s the screen shot of Cannon’s blog post:

    As far as “The Warning”…all I can say is I miss the old Em. His diss tracks vs. Benzino (“The Sauce” & “Nail in the Coffin”) were fire, but his recent excesses have worn thin on me. It’s gone from being clever and provocative (specifically referencing his “freestyle” diss tracks) to just being…gross.

  • I think to say that the PSA that NAS and Nick Cannon produced would fall on deaf ears because of the lack of knowledge of those who would be viewing it is like saying that it’s ok to let the minstrel show continue because it represents the evolution of hip-hop, a natural order in which nothing ever remains the same and those that remember the glory days of this art form are bitter because of it’s current representation. As far as I’m concerned, much of hip-hop has been nothing but a huge minstrel show for years. I doubt that any readers of this blog would disagree…It is important for people like NAS, to speak out against the ignorance that he may have once indulged to the younger generation. As a pioneer he has a voice and a right to speak on these matters. It’s kind of like Jay-Z’s track “Death to Auto Tunes.” It was his duty as a hip-hop legend, to speak out and say, “enough is enough.” Lets get back to organic hip-hop and stop the foolishness. The reality however, is that hip-hop will never be the same and will continue to evolve. The problem comes when generation after generation of kids, use hip-hop as there primary source of entertainment, cultural direction and lifestyle, which in the end becomes a self-defeating persona to many, leading to the perpetuation of stereotypes. Where do we draw the line? At what point do we become less critical of the way the message is delivered and educate those around us as to the true essence of the message. After all it is the responsibility of those that “know” to teach those that do no know. The strong may rule the weak, but the wise rules the strong…It’s about education…People like Spike and NAS, are only messengers, because we “get it” we have to interpret these messages for those that only see what’s on the surface. That is our duty!

  • To be clear: I totally agree the cooning/minstrelsy comparison is used far too often and too clumsily, so much that it’s practically devoid of meaning at this point. And the harsher judgments from older heads are often similarly sloppy and simplistic.

    (And I especially agree on the Tyler Perry thing)

    But I do think your critique goes a bit too far in the other direction.. the laments of older heads may sometimes be oversimplified and sloppily framed, but they do not arise out of thin air.

    Each of the quotes you cite, from various stages in hip-hop’s evolution, were reactions to real trends that were actually happening. 96 *was* different from 93 (altho I’m not sure it’s safe to assume Shadow was thinking of 93), 93 was hella different from 88, and 2009 is different from 96 even more so.

    Their respective takes on the root causes and significance of those trends, may have varied in its precision and accuracy…but trends did exist. There were -and are- criticisms worth making, or at the very least questions worth asking, about how hip-hop has evolved and is evolving.

    Tracks like “Fakin the Funk” by Main Source, and “Kamikaze” by MC Lyte, IMO mark unmistakable turning points in our history, so vividly that they still make me emotional whenever I hear them.

    The LOTUG example is kind of a funny one, because at the time, I and most people I knew saw them as dudes who made okay records but were basically part of the problem, not the solution…derivative commercial knockoffs of Das EFX.

    BTW Oochie Wally, *musically*, is a pretty solid track by old head boom-bap standards!

  • oh, indeed. I would never argue that hip-hop shouldn’t be criticized; there are plenty of real criticisms to be made about the music itself, the messages in it, and the practitioners or it.

    But that’s not what Nas is doing here.

  • Worst Spike Lee film: She Hate Me

    That was a hideous film. No bassis in reality what-so-ever.

    The hip hop debate is no longer advancing. Mainly I think because the focus has been on the rappers rather than the corporations behind them. I remember when Oprah did that show about hip hop and all she had was Black people who were either for or against hip hop on. I knew then that she wasn’t serious. If she had been she would have had (White)record company execs who control hip hop on.

    Also I thought eventually some of the rappers would realize that they were modern day minstrels by now but I suppose the money is too good for any sort of breakthroughs like that.

  • okay, you’re the second person in this thread to do the “rappers are modern-day minstrels” thing, which makes me think you didn’t read the post. A lot of people say this, and it strikes me as really really problematic.

    So do me a favor: name names and explain why they’re minstrels. Then name some rappers you don’t think are minstrels, and explain why they’re not.

    Thanks in advance.

  • ladyfresh

    Could you name an alternative movie that addresses the same subject matter?

    Hamfisted though he is for the most part he is dealing with an audience that has little appreciation for subtley and industry that at one point only (barely) allowed him to be funded in these type of endeavors. Then there is Spike a bit of a hamfisted personality as well wouldn’t you say?

    Given the alternative(s) I’m forced to appreciate Spike and his line of work if for no other reason that…there isn’t much else that makes this attempt at addressing a subject matter somewhat relevant to me from a somewhat similar pov, misogynistic veerings and all (after all it’s a misogynistic world)

    I’m a desperate viewer GD with little expectation, just shoot me now.

  • Coward

    IMO, the end of Bamboozled is one of the most powerful endings of a movie. Perhaps I am prone to “killing ants with sledgehammers” but when the music is playing over clips of all the effed up clips of television shows? Always gets me.

    Second, this fogeyism is not unique to hip-hop but is a part of the development and evolution of all cultural goods. Rock n roll, classical music, country music … you can find this debate in any cultural arena. In that sense I find it neither insightful nor useful.

    I’d be more interested in debates that look forward rather than behind. 2009 is different from 1996, but I’m not trying to claim that hip hop in 96, or 93, or 88 was unproblematic either. Instead, I’d be much more interested in identifying what we see as problematic and discerning how it might be made better. I think in order to do this we need to avoid rhetoric such as minstrel shows or over simplified solutions such as taking the money away.

    So I guess I kinda agree with GD and kinda don’t — what does it mean to call a rapper a minstrel and how might this be avoided in the future? And, again, who isn’t a minstrel, why not, and how can we support that persons vision/work?

  • Pingback: In Defense of Nas. « PostBourgie()

  • Ron

    I think Bamboozled was strong for the first half of the flick, mostly because, as has been said..there’s nothing close to a film released in the past x number of years that touches what’s happened in that flick. It’s over the top, but I’d hardly call it lazy. Damon Wayans was a bit absurd, but then, I suspect that’s what they required of him.

  • “…there’s nothing close to a film released in the past x number of years that touches what’s happened in that flick.”

    what does this mean, exactly? what issue does the flick touch upon that’s so important? and do you think it addresses that issue effectively or well?

  • Well said.

    I mean, I agree with your overall point GD BUT we gotta remember he context: there is not that much competition about this stuff, and we can afford to lower our standards at least in praising what Spike is TRYING to do (or what I think he is trying to do). Also, keep in mind that most films are hamfisted and do not handle subtlety very well, so why add the extra burden to Spike? My main problem with the film being so… mediocre is that it is not a must-see movie and it is sooo partisan, so a lot of people who could be moved to say ‘hey, media portrayals of blackness sucks, lets demand better’ are either not going to see the movie or will not be swayed by it.

  • I’m so glad someone else said “She Hate Me” was one of his worst films. I was starting to bounce in my seat while reading the comments. And, I say it was one of his worst films because after watching it a few times I STILL cannot tell you what the point/moral of the story was. For a director who is hamfisted (which has been agreed on in this thread), the point of that movie should have been obvious and it isn’t. I didn’t find it entertaining either. I was disgusted a good portion of the time, and I usually like I’m sorry, I can’t give Spike a pass just because he’s the only one trying when he is in a position, and has the resources, to do better.

    As far as the decline of hip-hop I think it has less to do with coons and money, and more to do with the decline in education in this country. My dad used to always tell me simple minds enjoy simple entertainment. So, if you consider how many children in this country can’t read at grade level, is it really a surprise that the #1 requested song might be something as simple as “Get Silly?” Also, the music industry isn’t suddenly more money hungry. If you look at all the biopics created, the depiction of a corrupt music industry is almost cliche. Anything goes to make a buck, and I dare say the music industry has gotten better with regards to what it will do to get it.

    I think where money comes into play isn’t so much from the top down, but from the bottom up. As I said, the level of education in this country has been declining, and we have more people than ever who want to “Get Rich or Die Trying” and see the entertainment industry (not just the music industry) as their way out, because they’re never going to become a Fortune 500 CEO when they don’t even have a GED. Becoming a rapper seems much more attainable. And, for the few who do make it in the mainstream music industry, support for simple mind-numbing tunes, like “Superman” is easy to come by because their peers feel like Souljah Boy is just like them. And, they’re right.

    All of that to say, hip hop will improve (and the level of entertainment altogether, because it’s all going in the shitter) when our children are smarter. Sorry for being so

  • lemme try again: what is Nas “provoking” us into doing?

  • Pingback: Policing Blackness. « PostBourgie()