Think Like Someone Who Enjoys Good Romantic Comedies

Think Like Someone Who Enjoys Good Romantic Comedies

I have a confession to make. You might want to sit down for this: I am a young Black woman and I enjoyed the film Think Like A Man.

Whew. Feels good to get it off my chest.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard that there was a film slated for 2012 based on the book, I did the obligatory eye roll and didn’t expect much. The past few times I made the grudging trek to the theatre to see movies with predominately Black cast — primarily so that I could keep my membership in the Black community — I was mildly disappointed. I say mildly because I have sadly grown to expect very little from Black movies. In real life, I find my community to include a wealth of comedic talent, natural artistic abilities, an eye for concepts that are abstract and often complex, and yet … on screen it seems that we often fall flat.

Nevertheless, Think Like a Man (TLAM) was everything you wanted a romantic comedy to be. It was witty, keen, and resonated for me as a young unmarried woman in her late 20s. I kept whispering to my best friend, “This is hilarious … This is so on point … This is so true!” He agreed.

But of course, EVERYONE doesn’t agree. Rahiel Tesfamariam, the founder and editor of Urban Cusp (a website I deeply respect), posited that TLAM served up “patriarchy with a smile.” Rahiel writes:

… Harvey, Tyler Perry, T.D. Jakes and countless others are making millions branding themselves as cultural gurus who understand the plight of black women.

Only a patriarchal mind set would constantly paint women with stereotypical, pathological brushstrokes and serve it up as digestible truth. As if real-world paternalism wasn’t enough, we can also have it to look forward to in black cinema.

She goes on to outline the four stereotypes of Black women found in the movie: the single mother, the promiscuous Jezebel, the never-satisfied control freak, and the emasculating powerful executive.

The problem here, though, is the article forgets the purpose of a romantic comedy. Have you ever seen a good rom-com where the women and men in the movie don’t have some serious flaw? That’s the whole point! Let’s break down these alleged stereotypes:

1. Single Mother – I’m not sure if “single mother” is a stereotype or if it’s a reality for many women, of all races. I’d be more inclined to believe that Regina Hall’s character was a stereotype if she were irresponsible, unable to care for her child, and dependent on welfare. But she wasn’t. She was the mother of one child who balanced healthy friendships, relationships, and a career. She was a single mother you’d be proud of!

2. Promiscuous Jezebel – Meagan Good’s character, Maya, just doesn’t fit this stereotype. She’s only shown sleeping with one man prior to her onscreen counterpart, Zeke. If anybody was seen as promiscuous, it was the man she was sleeping with who failed to remember her name and left the morning after. Was she more trusting than she should have been? Possibly. Promiscuous. Not sure on that one.

3. Never Satisfied Control Freak – I’m having trouble with the premise that Gabrielle Union’s character fell into this stereotype. She wanted the man she was dating to improve his career and commit to her…. Where’s the control freak part? Furthermore, when attempting to remodel their apartment, she asked for his input prior to making any decisions and only proceeded after he passed the reins over to her. Yeah, calling her a control freak is quite a stretch here.

4. Emasculating Powerful Executive – Here is where I can concede that there was a possibility that Taraji Henson’s character, Lauren fell into a stereotype, just not the one that Rahiel pointed out. What stuck out for me wasn’t Taraji’s power role, it was her ridiculous expectations for a man. She expected him to have a certain kind of career, pedigree, and power. The sad part is, while this is a stereotype, it’s one that I see in real life, much too often.

I’d be more inclined to believe that men are stereotyped in the film more than the women. You have:

1. The Reckless Rebounder – Kevin Hart’s character, Cedric, is the recently separated man who leaves a good woman he loves and embarks on a tour to get back on the dating scene and do nonsense in strip clubs.

2. The Playa – Romano Malco’s character, Zeke, is the ultimate player who wines and dines women, sleeps with them, then disappears.

3. The Mama’s Boy – Terrence J’s character, Michael, plays the ultimate cliché, the adult male who can’t quite let go of his dependence on mama.

4. The Normal White Guy – Gary Owen’s character, Bennett, is the White friend who has it all together and is in a happy marriage.

Unfortunately, though, calling out TLAM’s stereotypes of men doesn’t appear to fit in Rahiel’s overall theme that Steve Harvey and the film’s producers are serving up patriarchal ideals.

One other criticism lobbed at TLAM, not only by Rahiel but by others, is the lack of a spiritual message or any discussion of faith. In her commentary at The Washington Post, Rahiel says:

Matters of faith have historically been so deeply embedded into the black American psyche that’s its practically dishonest to reflect black women navigating concerns about love, family and careers without any substantive “God talk”…. Maintaining centrality in the character’s lives by providentially coaching them through life’s most important decisions, Harvey symbolically played the role of God.

Wow. Considering Steve Harvey’s frequent and often Tebow-like references to God in his comedy and on his radio show, I’m sure he’d be offended by the statement. As a Christian, though, I understand why matters of faith may have been strategically left out of the movie. A good portion of the movie centers around the “90-Day Rule,” in which Harvey posits that women should not have sex with a man until after 90 days of dating, because a good man who respects you will stick around for that long to “get the cookie.” The Christian perspective as outlined by the Bible, however, is in direct conflict with this advice. Sex outside of marriage is simply not an option for committed Christian couples. Steve Harvey knows this. And there clearly are contradictions inherent in his “God talk” and “relationship guru” personas. I cannot defend him on that. But this film is a separate matter, and I think viewers should judge TLAM for what it is, not what we want it to be.

How exactly could a movie with such a heavy focus on Steve Harvey’s 90 Day Rule also expect its characters to rely heavily on spiritual themes or guidance? If the characters did that, then they’d toss the book and its advice in the trash, and we would never have had a premise for this hilarious film that gives us something relevant to talk about with our friends.

In short, expecting a movie that does not purport to represent Christian values and themes to include references to “matters of faith” is a bit odd.

Think Like A Man is a keen, entertaining film with characters that I recognize from my daily life, but I believe many people expected it to suck — and probably for good reason. Unfortunately, when you start with low expectations, there is opportunity for self-fulfilling prophecy to take hold. You assume the movie is going to have you up in arms, so you find a way for the movie to, well, have you up in arms.

Give it a chance, if only for the lively discussions afterward.

‘There’s a Purpose Behind the Funny’

‘There’s a Purpose Behind the Funny’

A STAND-UP GUY: Michael Jr. says his approach to comedy didn't change after he became a Christian; his faith just gave him more important things to talk about.

Comedian Michael Jr. was a newcomer to New York City in 2001 when veteran comic George Wallace caught his show and gave him his big break. That same night, his manager invited him to church. He’s been mixing funny and faith ever since. News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller talked to Michael Jr. about his work and that of fellow comedian Reggie Brown. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: We recently interviewed Reggie Brown about his Obama impersonation at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Do you have any thoughts on his performance?

MICHAEL JR.: I don’t think enough people knew he was an impressionist. Some people look alike to some people, let me just say that. There was at least a percentage of people in the audience that really thought that was [President Obama]. Then when they hear what he’s saying, nobody wants to look like they’re dumb. I think what he was doing was some funny stuff.

Do you do race jokes in your routines?

Not really. I’m an observationist, so I notice some things that people do like if two white guys are walking down the street right toward one another, they make eye contact. They have a tendency to smile and tilt their heads down towards one another. For black people, we do the opposite. We frown and tilt our heads up. I actually do those motions on stage and it’s like an “ah ha” moment for everyone in the audience, because everyone has seen that before, but very few have really acknowledge it. Comedy’s best friend is tension and there’s a little bit of tension there already, so I look for something that’s a little harder to get at and try to make that funny.

Your BlackBerry video is really funny. It’s not about race, but it’s a smart use of it.

We wanted to make it feel like it was the real deal. If you look, I never laugh in the whole thing. There’s literally nothing funny being said; it’s just visually funny.

At what point did you become a Christian, because one of your routines is about learning how to pray?

I grew up in Michigan, but then I moved to New York. I got a place to live and I started hitting the clubs. I performed at one club, The Comic Strip Live, and George Wallace walks in. He sees my show and he walks up to me afterwards and says, “You’re really funny. Let me ask you a question: Why don’t you curse?” I was like, “I don’t know. What if my grandmother walked in or something?”

He laughed and said, “I’d like you to do a show with me and my best friend.” I go to do the show and I don’t even know who his best friend is. It’s me, him, and Jerry Seinfeld. After the show my manager said, “Michael, you wanna’ go to church with me tomorrow?” “Church? I just got two standing ovations, why do I gotta’ go to church? That don’t make sense.”

I went to this church called the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, and this dude is up on stage talking about Jesus. He ain’t screaming. He ain’t yelling. He ain’t got no perm. He’s just talking about Jesus. He did an altar call and I was like, “Nah, I don’t know what this is about. I gotta’ read the pamphlet first.” So I told myself I’d read the whole Bible before I went up to the altar. I didn’t know the Bible was that big. It took three months. I went up to the altar. Now I understand some stuff. I used to just think I was funny, but now I understand that I’m funny for a reason. There’s a purpose behind this funny. I don’t just happen to be funny.

Did becoming a Christian change how you thought about and performed comedy?

I just got broader. I got more knowledge, more understanding about myself and the value of other people as well. My comedy was pretty much the same. It was always clean, so I just went up on stage and talked about the same things, but from the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak. As I started getting the Word in me and the truth, being in different atmospheres, being in different churches I started to notice different things, so naturally that’s what you’re going to start talking about.

You made a documentary called The Road Less Traveled about doing comedy in jails and shelters. Are you still performing in those places?

We’re in the process of solidifying a non-profit. Initially it was something that I felt in my heart clearly that we should do it. We filmed it, but it was all new then. I just performed at an abused women’s event. We do that type of stuff as much as we can.

What is the key to getting people laughing when their life circumstances are challenging?

The whole reason why I did the film was that I understood that when a comedian gets on stage he wants to get laughs from people. God changed my whole mindset, like Romans 12:2. Instead of going up there to get laughter from people, God said, “Go up there and give them an opportunity to laugh.”

Now when I go to these homeless shelters or wherever I’m going, I’m not trying to get anything from them. I’m just trying to give them an opportunity to laugh. When you’re giving somebody a gift, it’s different, because now they’re like, “Wow, is this for me?” And they’re much more willing to receive it as opposed to me trying to take something from them.

What do you have coming up?

In September I will be filming my first comedy special, and we’ll put it out on DVD. That’s pretty exciting.  I’m writing a comedy film right now, which is exciting. I’ve never written a full length film before. It’s about two little kids from a black family and a white family that live right next door to each other and they end up agreeing to visit each other’s churches. We’ll see what happens as the comedy ensues because of the differences. At the same time, some ministry will go down as well. I don’t know what that is yet. I just do the jokes and then God shows up for the rest.

Playing Obama

Playing Obama

ACTING PRESIDENTIAL: Obama impersonator Reggie Brown onstage at the Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, before getting the hook. (Newscom photo/Lee Celano)

The top story in politics from this past weekend was the gathering of GOP candidates at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But the main topic of conversation around water coolers on Monday morning wasn’t what the candidates said but what was said about them on Saturday night by an intrepid Barack Obama impersonator. After delivering jokes aimed squarely at President Obama, the Faux-bama suddenly appeared to (forgive us, Mrs. Palin) “go rogue” with sharp zingers aimed at the GOP contenders. It was at this point that the performer’s microphone fell silent, and he was abruptly escorted from the stage.

An equal opportunity comedian, Reggie Brown is undaunted by the criticism from multiple quarters regarding his performance, and particularly the race jokes he shared during his act. UrbanFaith news and religion editor Christine Scheller spoke to Brown by phone Tuesday afternoon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: Have you ever had this kind of response before to one of your performances?

REGGIE BROWN: No, this the beginning. This has been amazing.

What’s your reaction?

I love it. It was an opportunity to get in front of a huge audience. When I first got the invitation, I was extremely excited to come down and speak at the leadership conference. … I’ve been building a reputation in the corporate world, with speakers bureaus and other private events, but for the most part, a lot of America didn’t really know who I was yet, and this gave me the opportunity to get out there. I did my job, did my material. From what I’ve heard, everyone thought I did it very, very well, including pretty much everyone at the conference who came up [to me afterwards]. I’ve been getting thousands of fan mails and new subscribers. Even the organizers thanked me and told me I did a great job.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, it sounded like the Republican Leadership Conference president sold you out. He said he would have pulled you sooner and had no tolerance for racially insensitive jokes. What did you think about that?

I don’t even want to touch that. People are intelligent enough to know when I delivered the jokes and when I was pulled. That was in the beginning of my material and it wasn’t until later when I brought up the candidates that I was pulled off the stage. From what they told me, I was over my time.

Do you get more gigs with Republican organizations than with Democratic ones?

So far, yeah. I think I have worked more for Republican parties than Democrat, but I work with Tim Waters, who was the number one Clinton impersonator and he said during [Clinton’s] reign, he found that to be true also. He said, “You’ll always find the opposing party hires you more.”

There was some debate about your race jokes in African American media outlets. What do you think about that?

My mother’s white and my father’s black, so I would have that in common with the president and I wouldn’t do anything towards any race to set them back … For my jokes to be called racist initially by a lot of reviews that came out, it’s absolutely ridiculous.

I thought they were done in a tasteful manner. It’s nothing I would have felt ashamed with if I was in that audience and someone said it. I don’t think the president took offense to it. He actually cracked jokes at the Correspondent’s Dinner referring to his background. When he opens a door on a topic, that opens it for me as well.

I don’t ever want to offend anyone in my material. Basically what I do is bring humor to situations. That’s comedy. I think it was one individual who made that statement. The media took it and started running with it. I urge people to watch the full appearance. I felt that I did well and everyone else pretty much has too.

 

Do you feel like you can’t win doing race jokes as a biracial person or can you address the topic from both angles?

I can address things from both sides, especially nowadays,  it’s more common for people to be biracial and mixed. … I know it was tough for my mom to raise me in the neighborhood we grew up in, especially taking us to certain pools and doing things like that. Now it’s just becoming more widely accepted and that’s a beautiful thing.

Do you have any tips for a comedian trying to work a tough room?

You just need to know your audience. I performed at a comedy club in Times Square really late one night, doing my political jokes and a lot of the material that normally kills fell flat, but it was because at 1:00 in the morning at a comedy club, most of them wanted to hear the F-bombs being dropped and I came with really witty political humor. I didn’t do too well. I got off stage and saw the next couple comedians, and immediately they’re like eff this, eff that, and everyone was rolling on the floor. So, you just have to know your audience and anticipate what they want.

YES, HE CAN: Reggie Brown says Obama's own jokes about his background open the door for him to be more daring about race.

Did the Republican Leadership Conference audience laugh less at the Republican jokes than at the race jokes as reported?

That audience was awesome. They were amazing. That’s why the performance was so good. As a performer, for the most part, doing what I do, you gain off the energy.  After I got pulled, they were coming up to me, [saying], “Why’d they pull you off the stage? You were the best part of the conference for me.” … They were great. Even when I was getting the oohs and ahhs, I was still getting a strong reaction.”

On your website, it says you offer clean comedy for corporate events. Is that qualifier based on anything in particular?

Basically, it’s the character protection. There are other guys out there trying to do the Obama character and they’re doing it in ways that I feel are disrespectful, not only to the president, but to  … I’m not even going to go there, but I just don’t agree with what they’re doing. There’s a YouTube video of this guy drinking 40s and smoking joints as the president. That’s ridiculous. That does nothing for the progression of comedy in my mind. For comedy to be funny, it’s gotta’ be witty, intelligent, and have something behind it. That’s what we do.

Are you primarily a clean comedian even when you’re not doing the Obama character?

Yeah, for the most part. I’m an actor first and foremost, so I would accept roles that aren’t necessarily clean. Sometimes in my material as myself, I tend to keep it PG-13, but I’m not one of those guys that goes out there and just swears, swears, swears. It’s gotta have some intelligence behind it and some motivation behind it.

What are you up to next?

A surprise appearance at a major sporting event on Thursday, but we have tons of bookings coming in. … Most of the time, I’m a surprise guest so I can’t really reveal where I’ll be, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of me very soon.

You can find out more about Brown at his website, and follow him on Twitter at @ReggieBrownski.

True Diversity Is Harder Than It Looks

True Diversity Is Harder Than It Looks

IN A STRANGE LAND: 'Portlanida' stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

If you’re not a fan of sketch comedy or a resident of the Pacific Northwest, you might not be aware a funny new comedy series starring Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney. Portlandia, airing on the cable network IFC, is a loving jab at the city of Portland, Oregon, and the hipster, bohemian lifestyle that it’s becoming known for.

“Portland,” as one character says to another, “is where young people go to retire.”According to Portlandia, it’s also a place where cars don’t exist, everyone has tattoos, and people are content to be unambitious, play in bands, and sleep ’til 11 a.m. “Where you can just put a bird on something and call it art.”

This last example was highlighted recently in a sketch involving two people who love to decorate by putting birds on things. The humor comes not only from its pitch-perfect depiction of Portland arts-and-crafts mavens, but also because (MILD SPOILER ALERT) when the bird-silhouette auteurs encounter a real live bird that flies into the store, their utopian pretense is shattered … and they freak out big time.

Like all great satire, this description is not far from the truth. Portland is a weird place, and its citizens work hard to keep it that way. I know this to be true, because Portland is my hometown. And this sketch reveals not only a quirk of the city’s culture, but it serves as an unintentional allegory about people’s attitudes about diversity.

The Real Versus the Ideal
Author George Pelecanos, former writer for HBO’s “The Wire,” has a salient quote that captures the typical Portland attitude toward diversity in his sprawling novel, The Night Gardener.

Speaking through character Gus Ramone, a straight-shooting police officer with a biracial son accused of a crime in an affluent neighborhood, Pelecanos wrote the following:

“I do not like that neighborhood,” says Regina. “With the bumper stickers on their cars.”

“Celebrate Diversity,” said Ramone. “Unless diversity is walking down your street on a Saturday night.”

Though it’s never said aloud, the notion is clear. In Pelecanos’ fictional Maryland suburb, the attitude is the same as it is in my actual hometown of Portland: Diversity is fine, as long as I can deal with it on my terms.

Just as the perky decorators of Portlandia loved to affix images of birds all over things without loving the actual birds themselves, so often do people of Portland love the idea of diversity without ever actually grappling with much actual ethnic diversity. (Christian Lander developed this idea on his popular Stuff White People Like blog with a post on loving the idea of soccer.) As someone who grew up in this region but spent the majority of his twenties in Chicago, I find myself constantly astounded and irritated by the irony that people in Portland often support ideals of tolerance and the embracing of ethnic diversity, yet the city is so overwhelmingly White. In fact, it is one of the most homogenous metropolitan cities in the nation. I guess it’s much easier to talk about loving people who are different than you when there aren’t that many people who are different than you. The whole conversation is mostly theoretical.

Even In Church, Too Much Work
This is not just a Portland thing, it’s a part of human nature. We like to avoid things that are hard to deal with, and most diversity issues, once you get past the surface-level platitudes, are hard to deal with. They involve ideas and paradigms that have been entrenched for decades, if not centuries, and most fundamentally, they involve clashes between cultural lenses that create worldviews, and make it difficult to communicate.

This is especially true in churches, which is why, for all of the gains made in the multiethnic church movement, churches that are truly multiethnic are still pretty rare. Even in a church like my own, that was intentionally planted as a multiethnic congregation over 20 years ago, we still have difficulty speaking frankly and freely about issues connected to race and ethnicity. We are blessed to be in a denomination that offers resources and personnel to help facilitate conversations around these issues, yet we’re still having some difficulty getting the process started.

I think it’s especially difficult for African Americans in these contexts, because many of us are tired of having diversity conversations that don’t lead to action or to changes of much consequence. Many of us have latent resentment that can turn to hostility in a hurry. Others of us feel like the conversation is just futile, and with the memories of 2008 fading fast, there doesn’t seem much hope or change on the horizon.

Not that it’s easier for other folks. There are plenty of underlying tensions that tend to show up in churches, and not only between Blacks and Whites. And the conflict bleeds into the political. Liberals tend to draw comparisons between the civil rights struggles for Blacks in the ’60s and the struggle for gay and lesbian acceptance today, whereas conservatives view the issues as separate and unequal. And then there is immigration reform, and then health care, then unemployment, and the issues go on and on. In even the most loving and stable faith communities, navigating these issues takes a lot of work.

Take What the Defense Gives You
It’s easy to talk about the problem, but what about solutions?

They start with finding the middle ground between avoiding naïve ideals devoid of reality and refusing to back down from difficult conversations just because they’re difficult. Most importantly, we must take the opportunities that already exist and make the most of them.
February, as we all know, is Black History Month. This is the time of year when Black folks are given brief platforms of cultural expression from which to broaden the horizons of others (usually White people). It happens in schools and churches and community events throughout America.

And for most articulate Blacks, people of substance who have achieved things and broken formidable cultural barriers, these seminars, speeches, and presentations can often feel like futile, token gestures meant to patronize the oppressed and entrench the status quo. In the grand scheme of things, these events can feel worthless and without meaning.

They are not. Many times, they are exactly where God wants us to be.

So if as Christians we are to effectively shine the light of Christ wherever we go, we must not despise less-than-ideal situations and opportunities. We must, in basketball parlance, take what the defense gives us.

This is what the apostle Paul did in Acts 25. Paul had every reason to overlook a chance to testify in front of a ruler who had a political incentive to keep him locked up, But he did it anyway, and God got the glory from it.

So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t feel empowered to do the same. After all, if He can keep track of every bird — even the ceramic painted ones — then He can keep watch over us.

Portlandia images from IFC.

A Visual Feast

A Visual Feast for urban faith

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) and Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) watch in awe as a shower of cheeseburgers triggered by Flint's fantastical invention overtakes Swallow Falls.

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when I first took my seat in the theater to preview Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a 3-D animated comedy based on the popular children’s book. At the very least, I hoped it would be better than G-Force, that painful guinea pig action caper from Disney that I endured (for my kids’ sake) earlier in the summer. But as the lights went down and the screen lit up, I was almost immediately transfixed by the zesty exuberance, frantic pace, and sheer ridiculousness of this loud and colorful film. The movie swings with wackiness, wonder, and truth. And, most of all, food.

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