Comedy hit a low spot at the Academy Awards when Chris Rock’s lame joke about the buzz hair style of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, caused by her embarrassment in suffering from the stressful condition of alopecia (loss of hair). Most of us believe Will Smith overreacted to Rock’s attempt at humor (not only was the joke an insult but also, not in the least, funny) by walking up to the stage and slapping the comedian in the face. Given the current state of race relations in the United States, one can only imagine what would have happened if a white actor had been the one to have struck Chris Rock: I’m quite sure bedlam would have ensued.
Although this is not a good example, nevertheless, the fact that a Black comedian can joke about a member of his own race, if nothing else, represents an advance of sorts in race relations. When Black comedians began to hit the stage, there was an unspoken taboo to make fun or belittle other Blacks. Much of the humor was situational and non-racial (e.g. Bill Cosby) or about past transgressions of whites such as the vile practice of lynching Blacks (that action recently banned by the government). This type of humor, indeed funny at times, like much of its kind, had an angry undertone to it. Audiences would sit and, as members of the white race, would grin and bear it and laugh either because the joke was genuinely funny or because they were expected to laugh. The late Jewish comedian, Jackie Mason, made sure when he indulged in ethnic humor, he would roast all ethnic groups rather than picking on any particular one.
The recent court case of Jussie Smollet, a gay Black actor who was convicted of staging a false hate crime, has taken a number of twists. His story of being attacked at 2:00 a.m. in the morning in Chicago by two men that yelled racist, antigay and pro-Trump slogans, splashed him with bleach and put a rope around his neck, appeared extraordinary. Many of Chicago’s leaders, reflexively, came to his defense supporting his narrative, thereby exacerbating existing racial tensions. Mr. Smollett’s lack of credibility became clear when the men, two brothers, that had purportedly mugged Mr. Smollett, confessed to the police that the actor had hired them for $3500 to commit the fake attack. Mr. Smollett was initially charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct, but these charges were dismissed by Cook County Prosecutor, Kim Foxx, after the actor agreed to surrender his $10,000 bond and serve two days of community service.
This ridiculously light sentence for an offender, who had caused utter chaos in the Chicago Police Department and potential civil unrest, was reviewed by a special prosecutor, Mr. Webb. Because he found some irregularities in the way Ms. Foxx handled the case, a trial took place. Subsequently, Mr. Smollett was found guilty of five counts of disorderly conduct, a felony, for reporting a false hate crime to police. Although the maximum for each count would have been 5 years, his lawyers pleaded that he receive no jail time. His attorneys made the point that this act was the defendant’s first criminal offense. However, the Cook County Judge, James Linn, upset with the evident perjury he committed, in conjunction with his complete lack of remorse, sentenced Mr. Smollett to 150 days. The actor left the court screaming “I am not suicidal and I am innocent.”
But Mr. Smollett’s attorneys then brought the case to the Appeals Circuit. Two of out of the three judges on the appellate panel agreed that the actor’s offense was non-violent in nature, and he was released from jail, after six days, and posted a $150,000 recognizance bond. The actor’s attorneys sought the release of Mr. Smollett due to the fact that the review process ordinarily would take much longer than the 5 months sentence he had received. Although the press and most Blacks initially sided with Mr. Smollett, after the facts became fully known, many remained conspicuously silent. Chicago Police Superintendent, Eddie Johnson, took exception to this stance of other Blacks by pointing out at a news conference how an Afro-American man had exploited racial divisions for his own gain.
David Chapelle, a Black comedian, like Chris Rock, in the manner of Jackie Mason, has targeted different ethnic groups, his own included. In a recent gig, Chapelle remarked about Jussie Smollet’s strange behavior. He stated: “African-Americans are oddly quiet because we understand that nigger was clearly lying.” He went on to say that the racial slurs that Smollett had cited “sounded more like something I would say.”
I believe that cracks, such as Chapelle’s, made in the context of a comedic performance take a certain amount of boldness. As Blacks gain more agency in the United States, jokes of this nature, once considered taboo among Blacks, will add another layer of Black humor. In essence, one joke in bad taste made by Chris Rock, and one very timely one made by David Chapelle, point to further progress in race relations.