Martin Lawrence Shames African Americans One More Time

Posted: April 16, 2014 in History

Big Mommas: Life Father, Like Son opened on Friday, and Martin Lawrence has taken African American culture back another rung down the ladder.  As a black woman, I find quite a lot to gripe about in modern culture, but nothing has offended me as much as the Big Momma franchise.  Even the words “Big Momma franchise” are enough to make me throw up a little in my mouth.  Martin Lawrence has chosen to sell out African American women to make a solid fortune by dragging mammies back into the spotlight and onto a gigantic screen near you, and he doesn’t even have the grace to be honest about it.  In a recent sound bite,Lawrence said, “when I do see Big Momma, it reminds me of my mother and my grandmother and so it always makes me feel good.”  How proud his mother and grandmother must be to know they are seen by their offspring as grotesque stereotypes.

The mammy was a minstrel show mainstay in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, reaching beyond the traveling stage circuit into motion pictures.  The image of an overweight, older black woman gently cradling the white children in her charge and fondly catering to the adults in the household was an image so enduring that almost no roles for black women existed in predominately white films unless they were playing those characters.  Away from the whites they doted upon, the mythical mammies became stern task-masters with their own families, beating the men and the children with equal alacrity.  None of the kindness lavished upon the white children ever seemed to make it over the threshold of their own houses.  These women were grotesque in their subservience and solicitation in one setting, monstrous in the terror with which they reigned in another.

Big Momma’s House entered the genre gently enough with the stereotype of an obese older black woman who went from the extremes of affection to discipline in a black household at the drop of a hat.  The next installment in the cavalcade of shame put Big Momma into the household of a white family with their own stereotypes: the helicopter mom, the workaholic dad, the misunderstood Goth teenager, and the apple-cheeked urchins who throw fits when they don’t get their way. These stereotypes are given carful redemption in the end, of course.  Big Momma is made the nanny to this brood, and before long, Lawrence is sacrificing sleep, health, and self-respect to give his all to this family, trying to protect and steer it in the right direction, no matter what.  The sight of his latex-enhanced backside being rubbed and bumped as a way of giving a bunch of eight-year-old girls a lesson in how to dance was jaw-dropping.  Is there any dignity in this character at all?  No, but that’s probably why this movie was number one at the box office three weeks in a row.

Recently we’ve been treated to the trailers for the next sequel featuring Big Momma draped in a sheet in a life drawing class, trying vainly to protect her womanly charms from the view of the students.  “Whoops, there it is,” is all she has to say for herself when the sheet gets ripped away and presumably all Lawrence has to say for himself as he pushes yet another distorted vision of black femininity onto the movie-going public.  This time, he’ll add a younger version to the mix, but there is nothing to suggest that there will be any greater sensitivity about the portrayals he is peddling.  No one seems to be calling him on his madness, so he hasn’t had to answer for it.  Instead, he just waits to get paid for it.  The latest film is getting panned by critics, but it has a 68% approval rating from fans on Rotten Tomatoes, so apparently they’re are getting their money’s worth.  And people will continue to pay for these depictions unless someone reminds Lawrence–publicly and loudly–that we’ve been down this sordid road before, and while money was made, progress was lost at every turn.  We have to say enough is enough, and I am saying it now.

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