These days Hollywood Black comedies fall into two categories with very few exceptions. The first, I like to call the Soul Plane category – which is basically a 21st Century minstrel show laden with the tragic identities, exaggerated personalities and stereotypes. In these films one can expect to see plenty of weed-smoking, booty smacking, gratuitous profanity, violence and malt liquor drinking with a side of fried chicken and biscuits. Just as insidious as the Soul Plane-styled Black comedies are their “family friendly” counterparts, which I like to call Tyler Perry films. These films portray Black families and relationships through centuries-old caricatures. In these films one can expect to see the obese Mammy (often times a cross-dressing man i.e. Madea Goes to Jail, Norbit or Bim Mamma’s House 1&2), the ridiculous coon, the strapping buck and/or the treacherous tom. Tyler Perry style characters usually masquerade in a routine dramatic sequence with a Christian moral motif. I have yet to determine which (if either) of these categories Next Day Air falls into, but after hearing an interview with a cast member this weekend, I’m optimistically hoping that the answer is neither.
The interview I listened to was with actor Wood Harris (The Wire, Remember the Titans). During the interview Harris mentioned that director Benny Boom had a simple rule on set: no one was allowed to say the word, Nigga (hmmmm… continue). Harris went on to say that not only was the word prohibited from being uttered on set, and eliminated from the script, but anyone who violated the rule had to pay a fine! Actors, staff and crew alike were charged a fine of 5$ every time they used the word “nigga”, in any context. Harris joked that he probably paid the most money in fines, followed by Mos Def. The rest of the interview was very interesting, but it left me wondering why the rule was implemented in the first place. The fact that Benny Boom, a former music video director, would have a level of consciousness that would compel him to exclude one of the most popular words in Black comedy from his film/set was intriguing. It’s a question that caused me to analyze other Black ambassadors to mainstream culture, and their relationship to the “N-word.”
When Black culture is placed on a platter for consumption by mainstream America, our cultural artifacts are at risk of being appropriated and abused out of context. This was the contradiction that drove such comedians as Dave Chapelle underground, and left pioneers such as Paul Mooney and the late Richard Pryor vowing never to use the word “nigger” on stage again. Mooney said that he stopped saying it because it had become an “equal oppertunity word” that young people of all backgrounds were beginning to say without reservation (see the Blackademics interview with Paul Mooney for of his perspective). Other comedians such as Chris Rock wrestle with the concept through their comedic routines (see Chris Rock’s Can White People Say Nigger?). Some artists, like Kanye West have been known to shout out to crowds of tens of thousands of his non black fans, “yall can say nigga tonight” – giving them a guilt free pass to sing at the top of their lungs during songs like Gold Digger. Emcee Phonte, of the Hip-Hop group Little Brother thinks of the word “nigga” as universal term of endearment, and uses it frequently to refer to people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. So I guess the jury is out regarding a standard approach to when, where, how and why the term should or should not be used in any given context. Benny Boom simply adds another theory to the mix: not only will I exclude the word “nigga” from my vocabulary, but you owe me 5$ for saying it around me. It makes me wonder what other creative and ethical decisions went into the production of his film. I’m not so naive as to assume that just because Next Day Air excludes this particular expletive, that it also excludes the caricatures and stereotypes of so many other Black comedies. So whether this was a publicity stunt to get people talking, or a financial scheme to generate more funds during the recession – they’ve at least succeeded in sparking my interest.