Is African-American comedy dying in drag?

OPINION - There's something a little sad about these undeniably talented comedic actors resigning themselves to endlessly return to this tried and tired formula...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“I don’t need to wear a dress to be funny.”

Dave Chappelle made this emphatic statement back in 2006 during a soul searching sit-down with Oprah Winfrey. He told her a revealing story about an experience he had on the set of a Martin Lawrence film (presumably Blue Streak) — where producers wanted him to perform a scene in a dress, which made him uncomfortable. As the filmmakers begged him to reconsider, Chappelle began to reflect on just how many black male comedians had embraced the black man in drag gag to get paid.

Chappelle is not the only one who’s been balking at this increasingly clichéd kind of comedy. This weekend, Martin Lawrence will headline a third entry in the man-in-drag Big Momma’s House comedy series. This April, Tyler Perry will star in what looks to be another lowbrow Madea film. In that same span of time there will not be a single major film released where an actual black woman plays a lead role. Instead the dominant Hollywood portrayal of a mature black woman in film will be a black male comedian playing an exaggerated stereotype of one.

For the last decade a growing chorus of critics and commentators has decried these films as sexist and degrading. The argument being that these films both emasculate the male performers and vilify the black women they are supposedly mimicking. But this brand of so-called humor didn’t come about overnight.

Flip Wilson became one of the biggest black stars to breakout in television during the early 1970s in part because of his exaggerated black female character Geraldine. Later in that same decade Saturday Night Live writers, who struggled to find roles suitable for the cast’s lone black actor Garrett Morris, often saddled him with drag parts because they knew it provided an easy laugh. Jamie Foxx became a breakout star on In Living Color in early 90s with his uproarious Wanda character.

Yet the black-male cross-dressing comedy became a full-blown genre when Eddie Murphy released his wildly successful comeback film The Nutty Professor in 1996. Of the plethora of characters Murphy created in the film, his Mama and Grandma Klump were arguably the most compelling and memorable. But there was some depth to the Mama Klump persona. I fondly remember a scene on the Klumps’ porch in the original film — where Murphy as Sherman plays a scene with himself as his mother where she tells him he’s beautiful. It’s not played for laughs and it’s actually sincerely moving.

But in The Nutty Professor’s wake came numerous pale imitations (including the film’s far broader sequel) and any kind of humanity was thrown out the window for crude stereotypes. There was Juwanna Mann, Big Momma’s House, Norbit, White Chicks and many incarnations of Madea. And while these films varied in terms of success and style one thing united them all — they all portrayed black women as angry, violent and ugly.

Audience members who frankly didn’t find this funny were left scratching their heads — why so much hostility towards black women? There have been enough cruel and insensitive interpretations of black women on the big screen from the early days of mammies and pickaninnies, why would these films, all starring and often conceived by black men, revel in making black women look like gun-toting psychopaths?

One argument is obvious — it’s profitable. Norbit may have cost Eddie Murphy an Academy Award but it was a solid smash at the box office. Martin Lawrence’s film career has largely floundered outside of the Big Momma series. Meanwhile, Perry’s films that feature Madea prominently outgross his films where she doesn’t appear or has a diminished role. And I don’t begrudge these men for their success. We all know how hard it is for a black man to break through in Hollywood. But once you have, why not use your stardom in a creative way that’s positive and intelligent?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little politically incorrect comedy — when it’s actually original and funny. Dustin Hoffman was brilliant in Tootsie but he didn’t make a career of imitating women. There’s something a little sad about these undeniably talented comedic actors resigning themselves to endlessly return to this tried and tired formula of black man acting like an angry black woman to score cheap laughs.

Later this year, Lawrence is expected to team up with Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx (how long ago does his Ray heyday seem these days?) in yet another drag comedy (featuring their infamous Sheneneh and Wanda characters) inexplicably titled Skank Robbers. These characters are very amusing in the context of a sketch but are they capable of sustaining a feature film? I doubt it.

Who’s to blame for this proliferation of poorly made comedies? The usual routine is to fault black audiences for not supporting more uplifting or at least, less stereotypical black films. But I think the actors themselves should be held more responsible for the roles they choose. Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry have the clout to choose or produce better pictures. And they’re capable of doing better work — Murphy’s stellar, Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls was proof enough of that. But instead of appealing to our better angels on screen as dramatic actors like say Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle do, a performer like Martin Lawrence can only brag about the size of his paycheck.

“We’re going to ride this until the wheels fall off,” Lawrence”>says of the Big Momma series. Meanwhile, Super Bowl ads, cartoons and other forms of media reinforce the idea that black women are undesirable and even worse, physically abusive.

The fans and filmmakers behind these movies will likely argue — can’t you take a joke? But there’s nothing funny about putting down your own people for the sake of a buck.