We’re passing through a phase of Shiny Happy Black People in Hollywood. A friend calls them white-savior movies, and whether the protagonist is the inarticulate football star in The Blind Side, the terrified dreamer and fried chicken-gobbler in Precious, or the cartoon lovers sailing through Jim Crow-era N’Awlins in The Princess and the Frog, the premise is essentially the same: Black people must be rescued by lighter-skinned folk. I am certain that this trend has to do with the election of Barack Obama (“Racial barrier falls,” a New York Times headline read), a sedate and saintly-seeming dark man who calmly gives direction to the hard-working whites beneath him, not unlike Morgan Freeman’s recent Nelson Mandela. A particular slant to Obama’s election was not just that a racial minority could triumph by ascending to America’s highest political office, but that we—whoever “we” were—could triumph by making it happen. This crop of current Oscar bait isn’t so different in import from the influx of civil rights-era award-winners like To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, all of which argued for peace and justice through some sort of assimilation. Both eras have generated socially progressive films by African-American filmmakers, but the press didn’t devote itself to Watermelon Man 40 years ago, nor to Medicine for Melancholy last year. The race-centered films that have historically garnered the most attention, it seems, are by and large those that show how wonderful it is when a black person is allowed to inhabit a white person’s world.
This context helps make Wanda Sykes: I’ma Be Me striking viewing, since so much of Sykes’s act aims at deflating such good intentions while simultaneously (sneakily) upholding them. Sykes, the curly-haired, squeaky-voiced comic star of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The New Adventures of Old Christine, begins her November 2009 HBO special by jogging out to face an extraordinarily receptive Washington, D.C. crowd. Sykes heated collars when she called Rush Limbaugh the 20th 9/11 hijacker at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and so unsurprisingly begins her stand-up with Obama material. Now that Obama is in charge, she says, black people are allowed to do what they want without worrying about stereotypes. She starts tap-dancing, professes her love for watermelon, and says, “I hope he gets a second term. Then I’m going to Popeye’s.”
Sykes worked as a writer for The Chris Rock Show, and it’s evident; the tension she exploits between how American blacks feel they have to behave and how they actually want to was covered by Rock in his celebrated “black people vs. niggers” routine with much greater success. What Sykes does that’s new is highlight how black skin in America forces a discussion of race almost by definition, even among black people themselves (“I know that I keep saying ’the first black President,’ even though he’s biracial. But I don’t care. To me he’s the first black President—unless he fucks up”). White stand-up comics like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce have made race a key part of their routines, but there’s a perception that American art doesn’t have to announce that it’s discussing race unless its characters are non-white—then it needs to. In other words, it would be much stranger for Tracy Morgan to go through an entire routine without mentioning skin colors than it would be for Will Ferrell to do so. “Ain’t it funny how the only time your race or gender is questioned is when you’re not a white male?” Sykes asks.
Yet though the question is valuable, Sykes answers it by pandering to her audience. Faulkner writes in The Sound and the Fury that “a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior: a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.” There’s a very thin line between invoking a stereotype to critique it and doing so to exploit it, and I can’t help but feel that at times Sykes is employing black stereotypes under the cover of discussion (snapping her fingers and slapping her ass to show how people secretly expect Michelle Obama to behave) in order to get cheap laughs. A back and forth between simplification and provocation takes place throughout the evening, in fact, as tired jokes about farting and erectile dysfunction pad out more stimulating discussions.
About halfway through the 86 minutes, Sykes mentions she’s a lesbian, and says, “It’s harder to be gay than it is to be black.” What’s fascinating in this line is the assumption of still having to choose between the two, rather than being both at once. But it is true that an American mania for demographics has made it difficult to belong to two minority groups simultaneously (or even to a minority group and to a majority group; look at the ease with which people call Obama “black”). Rather than actually elucidate what it means to be a lesbian, period, though, let alone what it means to be a lesbian and non-white (as a comic like Margaret Cho does), Sykes begins describing a gay cruise she went on, as though to make herself appear straight in comparison to flamboyantly gay men; the distance one keeps from the closet becomes the sexual equivalent of how much a black person lets himself or herself be thought of as a nigger. Her attempts to link separate discussions of race and sexuality prove feeble, but the fact that she attempts to link them at all—and seems to believe that they can be linked—is some kind of progress, even if she undercuts it by mentioning Bojangles and jockstraps.
Sykes makes many more black jokes than gay jokes, and nearly no jokes at all about class, as if ranking the topics that she believes her audience will dig. She’s not especially funny, either physically (a rigid lower body and an upper one encased within a mime’s box) or verbally (a willingness to poke fun at situations rather than elaborate and complicate them, adding surrealistic details as gifted storytellers like John Leguizamo do). But she is smart. Her show made me think more than nearly every new movie I saw last year; and yet, at evening’s end, I couldn’t help but feel like she had a lot more to say.
The concert, filmed in digital video, looks shot through a clear windowpane, entirely consistent with HBO's other stand-up specials. The sound is a bit tinny and echoing, which may have more to do with Sykes's holding the microphone so close to her mouth than with the disc's production quality. But both sound and image prove serviceable and unobtrusive.
Sykes’s concert act both provokes and stimulates, but nonetheless leaves much to be desired.