It is always a good time to talk about racism and poisonous images pumping through the mass-media pipeline. What is most interesting is the traditional but unpredictable source of the trouble. Whenever critics point at Tea Party posters of Barack Obama as a witch doctor or as a garishly dressed pimp attending a ball at the White House with Michelle, it is easy to realize that the Tea Party, Fox News and the rest of their ilk are not the worst offenders. Hip-hop minstrelsy, taken to an extreme, has repeatedly outdone all crude, vindictive and simply clumsy whites whenever it comes to dehumanizing black people. Hip-hop obviously, and no less insultingly, does it better.
Byron Hurt is a hip-hop fan from way back, but when he took a critical look at what it has become in its most thugged-out extremes, the filmmaker created a devastating documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It makes the strongest case for connecting hip-hop imagery with all that was demeaning and commonplace in 19th- century minstrel shows.
Though losing the ball as often as he recovered it, Spike Lee served us all well with his Bamboozled by looking high and low until he reached something uncomfortably close to the absolute truth, which always cuts both ways. The Brooklyn, N.Y., director and filmmaker finally recognized that simple-minded "street brothers" can come up with an angry black nationalism as shallow and unconsciously pernicious as anything done in the long Hollywood tradition of stereotyping black people for laughs.
That is what Thomas Chatterton Williams meant in The Wall Street Journal when he recently described Lil Wayne as "a modern-day minstrel who embodies the most virulent racist stereotypes that generations of blacks have fought to overcome. His music is a vigorous endorsement of the pathologies that still haunt and cripple far too many in the black underclass."
And now, under the banner of humor or satire, yet another minstrel monster has raised his video head from the gutter once again in the brand-new "Head of State," which has been seen on YouTube more than a million times.
Shouldn't Barack Obama almost always be moving through an open season for satire? Without a doubt. Any American in a position of power has to be ready for a pie in the face. It goes with the job description; it's a frequent tool used by those from the lower depths of society in order to get vital revenge against those who pretentiously give commands from above.
Others have parodied Obama, including Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen and YouTube star Alphacat, aka Iman Crosson. But "Head of State" is not actually about satire or taste or any sense of the judicious. It is grounded in what Arthur Rimbaud termed the "love of sacrilege" in his 1873 book-length poem, "A Season in Hell."
The willfully outrageous rant is one of the blueprints for irresponsibly childish petulance in the face of a constricting bourgeois order. Sacrilege and combative rejection of the rules become basic tenets of individuality. In the American matter of race, with so many innovators apparently committing themselves to defilement, what group can we expect to go further and better express disdain for the middle class than those loud and obnoxious people who were not born white? After all, they live in the scalding underbelly of society, where "reality" never takes a backseat.
Observing the bull rage through the china shop has become both a form of liberation and entertainment. Crash — and it's done. The only thing left standing is the destroyer, especially charismatic if embodying the joy of the child ruining a bloated and pompous form. The first black person to benefit from literal destruction in performance was Jimi Hendrix. He concluded his act by setting fire to his guitar and beating it against his amplifier. Minstrel anger and symbolic violence became central to the rock audience's appetite for thrills bound to anarchy.
But the image of the Negro in cinematic comedy has, more often than not, been far less than compassionate or aware of this fact: Truly great comedy moves very close to pathos, tending in its most extraordinary moments to embrace the bittersweet feeling of human frailty. Profound recognition of human frailty is always collective, and the exclusion of black people from that equation of universal fact is the perpetual problem.
When sheer vulgarity is thought to do the job of liberating, more than a little is lost. Shock is misconstrued as a substitute for substance. Richard Pryor was, along with Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, one of the prime geniuses of American comedy. Pryor brings pathos and humor together with a matchless virtuosity in his 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert as he describes his heart attack. He falls to the stage in a bracing rendition of pain, then tries to call heaven and gets God on the line. He's put on hold.
Then Death finds out that Pryor was calling God behind his back and puts a heavy foot on the comedian. More pain ensues, until Pryor is lying onstage in a pretzel of agony. None of his imitators have ever done anything close to that. They take the shortcut through the reductive force of tasteless vulgarity.
Unfortunately, Pryor's use of coarse language, and his fast and loose sprinkling of the term "nigger" as both a linguistic spice and a misbegotten form of black "authenticity," bedevil us to this day. It has become no more than a product that any unimaginative black comedian or rapper can use as recklessly and relentlessly as possible.
Of course, Pryor's rejection of the term as demeaning late in his career has largely been forgotten. Or conveniently forgotten. "Nigger" — or, rather, "nigga" — is used as almost an incantation in "Head of State," which was directed by Martin Usher and stars comedian James Davis as the thugged-out Obama. It is a spoof of rapper Waka Flocka Flame's "Hard in Da Paint."
Jon Caramanica, a New York Times writer, praised "Head of State" and proved once again how dangerous critics are when afraid of angering and alienating themselves from opportunists more intent on getting attention and making product than saying something artistic. Artistry is beyond Negroes anyway, as these critics see it. Buffoonery will do. Extreme hip-hop has proved that. The more vulgar and violent, the more real and deeply felt — or so the thinking goes. They are wrong, of course. Even Flocka Flame has described "Head of State" as "almost a form of disrespect" to Obama.
Davis sees things differently. But then, he's confusing minstrelsy with an ethnic and class statement. "I can speak to the educated black guy and the hood black guy," Davis told the Times. "The fact that we can come out and put on a full production like this in an area where there's gang violence, in what people would consider the hood, is important to me."
It is disturbing to see the petty power of meaningless violence and impotent threat boosted up by endless partying, as if tomorrow is a fantasy. It is not. For the majority of the uneducated young black men depicted in "Head of State," little more than deep discomfort and endless frustration are guaranteed them.
The muddy little secret is that most of these "street brothers" will end up in real body bags or the cement cocoons of prison and the squat, stucco houses of an impoverished underclass. Prisoners in one place or another, they will remain important only in terms of entertainment value as brutal and stupid buffoons, always wearing the cold iron mask of a minstrelsy they may never see for what it actually is: contempt.
Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.