Jenice Armstrong | Edifying flicks? Fat chance!

WHAT'S SO funny about a fat black woman?

And what's so funny about a black man dressed as a fat black woman?

A movie poster promoting Eddie Murphy's new flick, "Norbit," got me on this topic. On the poster, a nerdy guy, played by Murphy, is shown lying underneath a hugely overweight woman - who happens also to be Murphy dressed in drag and a rather realistic-looking fat suit.

I haven't seen the movie. But given Murphy's superb comedic chops, I'm sure that "Norbit," which opens Feb. 9, will be full of laughs - even if most wind up being cheap fat jokes. In the film, the lead male character is coerced into marrying an overbearing, morbidly obese woman. Afterwards, he spots a gorgeous woman, portrayed by Thandie Newton, whom he falls for and then tries to figure out how to be free of his supersized wife.

In a trailer promoting the film, Murphy's female character goes to a beach, where a lifeguard asks her if she's wearing bottoms with her bikini bra. In response, she lifts her expansive belly to reveal a skimpy pair of briefs that had been hidden by her substantial girth.

Hardee har har.

Besides being sophomoric, there's something decidedly misogynistic about this kind of humor. Not to mention that it's also offensive, particularly to overweight people. Didn't we get our fill of this kind of crass "comedy" last year with that disaster "Big Momma's House 2," starring Martin Lawrence?

Meanwhile, actor Tyler Perry was raking in the bucks with "Madea's Family Reunion" in which he, too, donned padding to portray a wise-crackin', plus-sized matriarch.

But back to my original question: What's so funny about a fat black woman?

There's nothing new about male actors donning drag for laughs. During his heyday, comedian Milton Berle made this into an art form, as did Flip Wilson with his character Geraldine. And there was Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie." But something else seems to be going on with this current crop of movies spoofing plus-sized women. For perspective, I posed the question to Mel Watkins, author of "On the Real Side: A History of African-American Comedy" (Lawrence Hill Books, $16.95), who pointed out that, "There's a humorous tradition about aggressive black women. It has to do with that Sapphire image, which goes way back.

"It goes back to the 19th-century minstrel shows, even when the minstrel shows didn't have black performers. They would do it in blackface," he said. "It showed black women to be unattractive and the black man to be weak because he was controlled by his woman.

"It's been part of Americana for a hundred years and will remain as such because nobody seems to be interested in getting rid of it," continued Watkins, who also wrote "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry" (Pantheon, $26.95).

In movies' early days, Stepin Fetchit was a slow-witted, shiftless black character who, despite his success at the box office, came to symbolize the stereotypical ways that African-Americans have been portrayed in film.

"Stepin Fetchit didn't have a choice. These people making these movies [today] have a choice," Watkins pointed out.

Too bad it's one that more black actors can't say no to. *

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