Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy is probably polishing up his acceptance speech for Hollywood's biggest night, hoping to take home a golden statuette for his transcendent role as James "Thunder" Early in
. But mistake him for being a serious actor?
In this year of Oscar diversity, in which five African Americans are being celebrated as among the best in film, Murphy has crafted one of the most degrading characters in a long time in Rasputia, the villainess he portrays in Norbit, his latest poor excuse for cinematic entertainment.
Seven years removed from his success in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Murphy dons yet another fat suit to play Rasputia, a foul-mouthed, oversexed, aggressive, morbidly obese man-eater who barrels through the movie as a plus-sized King Kong, just about destroying everyone in her path. That includes her wimpy husband Norbit, also played by Murphy. But it is Rasputia who is the butt - no pun intended - of nearly every tasteless sight gag Murphy can muster, cruel jokes that draw comparisons to gorillas and whales.
Moviegoers black and white gorged on Norbit to the tune of $44 million on opening weekend, and it won first place at the box office. But receipts dropped considerably the following week. Maybe it meant folks had quickly gotten their fill of Norbit, the movie equivalent of junk food.
What happened to Murphy? That's a question for the ages. When he first emerged on Saturday Night Live in the early '80s, as an irreverent storyteller with a natural talent for mimicry, I thought he had the potential to become a great social satirist, as did Dave Chappelle and Aaron McGruder. Murphy graduated to film, but instead of using his unquestioned talent to tell truthful stories of black life, he has pandered to his audience, offering up stereotypes of his own people to the highest bidder.
He's not the first. Historically, Hollywood has not done right by black characters, especially women. There was the desexed servant played by Hattie McDaniel and the untouchable goddess portrayed by Lena Horne, but there were no early roles written for the real-life characters in between.
That's why movies like Norbit continue to harm. "The unfortunate thing is that people carry away these distortions," says film historian Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. "You wonder what effect it has on a larger woman or girl who for some reason see themselves in this character."
If you really want to see an honest depiction of black life, go see Daddy's Little Girls, Tyler Perry's new drama. Idris Elba (The Wire) plays a struggling father who is trying to get custody of his three daughters.
The stories Perry tells are ones seldom seen on the big screen, simple, real-life tales of decent people. Everyday people. Yes, even fat people, but people like the ones you know in the neighborhood, not some grotesque worthy of harpooning, like a human Moby Dick.
Interestingly, Perry first came to prominence on the stage-play circuit wearing a fat suit. His Madea, a no-nonsense, cigarette-smoking matriarch, was quickly embraced by audiences, who recognized their own relatives in her. Perry played Madea as a neighborhood sage who dispensed influence and homespun wisdom to empower women, not as a caricature to humiliate.
Interestingly, Madea does not appear in Daddy's Little Girls. Perry says he has retired the character indefinitely. So while Madea may have helped make Perry a star, it is Perry sans drag who is enlightening audiences by sharing the black experience honestly. Not Murphy and Rasputia.
Since May, I have written weekly about pop culture and its impact on society. I hope you've come to this space to read about issues of race and culture in ways that you could not find elsewhere, and maybe even discovered some things you didn't know. I've shared my views as a way to have a different, more honest discourse.
As readers, you've done likewise and challenged me to a spirited give-and-take. I've come out of these exchanges with new perspectives and added respect for you and, in many cases, we've found common ground.
After today, I'll be leaving this space to begin writing a column that will appear in the local news section next month. My goal will be the same - to tell stories that shed light on the ways in which others live. I hope you'll join me there.