Moviegoers should stop getting a 'Life'

June 09, 1999|By Gregory Kane

THERE IS now definite, positive, incontrovertible proof that black Americans are simply incapable of taking themselves seriously. It comes in the form of a film. It's called "Life," a comedy in a fictional setting that smacks suspiciously of Mississippi's notorious Parchman Prison Farm.

Released in mid-April, "Life" has earned close to $60 million. That's more than "Amistad," co-produced by Debbie Allen, made. It's far more than Oprah Winfrey's "Beloved" made. Eddie Murphy starred in "Life" and is one of its producers. Comedian Martin Lawrence is a co-star.

So there we have it. Black women are producing serious films about African-American history and black folks are staying away in droves. Black men are producing foolishness and American Negroes flock to the theaters as though armed guards couldn't keep us away. Go figure.

Some blacks have argued that "Amistad" and "Beloved" are about slavery and hence much too painful to attract a mass audience of African-Americans. So we prefer a comedy about Parchman Prison Farm, the history of which can't possibly be as bad as slavery, right?

Wrong. The history of Parchman and other prison farms like it across the South is, according to at least one historian, worse than slavery. That's what Rutgers University history Professor David Oshinsky called his book on Parchman: "Worse Than Slavery -- Parchman Prison Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice."

The only thing wrong with Oshinsky's book is the subtitle: the term "Jim Crow justice" is the granddaddy of all oxymorons. But he painstakingly documented that Parchman was one of the most racist, brutal, oppressive and hellish places ever to besmirch American soil. Inmates were starved, beaten and worked to death. The entire Southern prison farm system is one of which all Americans should feel truly ashamed. So what do we do? Make a comedy about it. Trivialize it. Treat it in such a way as to pretend the horror never happened.

You would think black America's thought police would have swung into action by now. You know who I'm talking about. The usual suspects. The ones who howled that UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" made light of slavery and wanted it yanked off the air. The ones who wanted another Eddie Murphy production -- Fox network's "The PJ's" -- banned for racial stereotyping. The ones who have appointed themselves the sole, exclusive guardians of the sacred black image.

What's been their reaction to "Life"? Silence. We've heard not a mumble from this crowd. Apparently, the oppression of blacks as a comedy doesn't offend them. And if it doesn't, nothing should. The next time they complain about the black image in this or that Hollywood production, I hope a producer, white, looks them in the eye and tells them point-blank, "You Negroes need to get the hell out of my face."

That's an appropriate remark to make to a silly people. And that's what African-Americans are: silly. We celebrate Black History Month every year and still don't know anything about our history. There's no way a comedy about Parchman should have even been made, much less patronized to the tune of nearly $60 million. If a Jewish producer made a comedy about Auschwitz, he couldn't show his face among Jews again. A black producer makes a comedy about Parchman and we make the guy richer.

Here's an example of the "comedy" portrayed in "Life": Someone asks a group of black inmates if any of them can read. Their silence and baffled looks reveal most of them can't. This caused the Negroes in the audience to cackle gleefully. I was left wondering why this scene -- and Mississippi's history of keeping blacks illiterate -- was even remotely funny.

In our most recent conversation, Oshinsky said he hadn't seen "Life" but heard it was "bittersweet." He was no doubt referring to the scene in which one black inmate, experiencing angst over his homosexuality and impending release, bolts for freedom and is shot.

Only one death is portrayed in this movie about a place where death was common. There's little indication of Parchman's brutality, of how it was part and parcel of Mississippi's Jim Crow system of keeping blacks under control and second-class citizens.

Black Americans have accepted a comedy about Parchman Prison Farm. A musical satire about the Middle Passage can't be far behind.

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