New York City Council Dons Hoodies In Honor Of Trayvon Martin
Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

'Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story' Emphasizes Childhood On Episode 1

What resonates most in the first hour of 'Rest In Power' is how it frames Trayvon Martin for exactly what he was: a child.

After a harrowing opening sequence, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story begins with a photograph of Trayvon as a toddler. He’s dressed in a Mickey Mouse jumpsuit and has a birthday hat strapped to his head. His mother, Sybrina Fulton informs viewers he used to be called Crazy Legs and calls her son “so affectionate.” His father, Tracy Martin, gushes about Trayvon growing “whiskers on his chin” and says, “he wanted to do everything. He was like that glow.”

It’s likely the first time most viewers have ever seen the photo and is followed by several more pictures of Trayvon being exactly what he was: a child. The first episode of the six-episode documentary series -- directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason and executive produced by Jay-Z along with Martin’s parents and others -- does exactly that throughout, present things as they are.

The goal of Rest in Power is not to solve the mystery of Martin’s death, the statement the first episode makes is there is no mystery. George Zimmerman infamously gunning the 17-year-old Martin down on February 26, 2012, may not have been a crime, according to the 18th Circuit Court of Florida, but it was a tragedy and is presented as so.

Rest in Power is a brutal watch, both because of the disheartening tragedy of Martin’s death, and because of the heartbreaking realization that so little has changed in the six years since he was gunned down. Just a little over a week ago, Markeis McGlockton was gunned down in another “Stand Your Ground” shooting a little over 100 miles from where Martin was killed after a confrontation over a parking spot.

Still, traumatic as it may be, the first episode is masterfully crafted. The premiere covers the events surrounding the shooting, while agonizingly pointing out that 71 seconds will forever remain unaccounted for. Those 71 seconds “changed America,” as Sybrina put it, and only Zimmerman can truly say what happened in that unaccounted time.

The use of archival footage is powerful, as is the testimony from all of the principal characters around the shooting, sans Zimmerman of course. But it’s the framing of Trayvon as the child he was that resonates the most throughout the opening hour. The first responding officer on the scene even solemnly notes his surprise that the victim in question “was just a kid,” as he recalls arriving at the scene and performing CPR on Trayvon.

Even in surveillance footage from his faithful trip to 7-Eleven, Trayvon looks unassuming, almost timid. Yes, he is wearing the now famous hoody that may have cost him his life, but he doesn’t look threatening; if anything, he looks cold. At the moment where he was supposed to look so intimidating that someone felt the need to stand their ground, and kill him in a life or death situation, he looked like a child quite literally buying candy from a candy store.

But Trayvon isn’t treated as wholly innocent either. Widely-circulated photos of the teenage with his middle fingers up and gold teeth in his mouth are shown, and the story of his suspension for having marijuana residue on school grounds is discussed. Tracy admits that Trayvon began misbehaving after 10th grade. No punches are pulled, but the nuance that is normally stripped away from young black teens is now provided. Trayvon was still just a boy, even if he had made some mistakes. His father was trying to straighten him out, only to be robbed of the opportunity.

Zimmerman is presented matter-of-factly as well, and it’s that coldness and forthright telling of the story that sometimes makes the details of the story hit the hardest. For instance, it’s revealed, “George Zimmerman left the police station after midnight. He was not charged with a crime” only in text, on top of the video of the Sanford Police Department. Even with just the natural, ambient noise of the night, the white text overlay of that simple fact speaks volumes and is tormenting.

Later, the technique is repeated as Zimmerman is subjected to a voice stress analysis test to determine whether he is lying about his account of the shooting. “George Zimmerman passed the test. There were 9 questions. None addressed race,” is placed in the corner of the screen, and again the impact of those facts is amplified without any amplification. Furst and Willoughby Nason realized there is no need to embellish or accentuate this story, the statement of facts alone is beyond compelling and often heartbreaking.

There is little to no commentary on Zimmerman himself, just presentation of facts, often in his own words. Zimmerman’s 911 call as he followed Trayvon is played, as are the numerous, similar calls he made in the months before as a neighborhood watch captain. His confessional police interviews show as well, along with images of the damage to his face and head from his incident with Trayvon. Video of Zimmerman reliving the incident at the scene is shown, and a former police officer chastises him for using his gun even while in “fear of his life.” Zimmerman is mostly left to tell his own story, and the viewer is left to make their own judgments of him after watching him do so.

No details are glossed over, and every step of the shooting and the subsequent events are detailed. Some moments that may have previously gone unconsidered are chronicled, including the Sanford Police having to identify Trayvon and notifying his parents. The documentary plays both Tracy’s calls to report his son missing, and the call when he’s contacted by the police, and he agonizingly relives the tragedy for the camera as well. Tracy’s fiancee Brandy Green can barely muster up the strength to give her perspective and fights through tears to do so. Tracy himself was ultimately moved to tears as well. “You can’t even really explain the feeling,” he said.

The first episode of Rest in Power ends focusing on the micro ramifications of Trayvon’s death. His parents lament over the tragedy as the episode draws to a close, and footage of them remembering hearing the 911 calls leading up to and during the shooting for the first time is shown. Their anguish was already apparent, as expected, but watching their faces as they recall hearing their son screaming for help moments before he’s shot is torturous. They speak about recognizing their son, instantly, and struggling to maintain their composure. Eventually, they both cry, and it’s as if their son died again, right there in front of them. Again, Furst and Willoughby Nason let the story tell itself and play out just as tragically as it did for Tracy and Sybrina.

The scope pans back to the macro as the next episode is teased, and Tracy says “we opened up Pandora’s box” as footage of Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem is shown. If the impact of his untimely demise was lost on the viewer before tuning in, it’ll never escape them again after it was so methodically laid out in the first hour of the six-hour documentary. If that was the goal of Furst and Willoughby Nason, along with Tracy, Sybrina, Jay-Z and everybody else involved with Rest in Power they did that and more in the first episode. Viewers will be anxiously awaiting the next installment, even if it’s a story we’ve all seen far too often and know far too well.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Paras Griffin

Soul Train Awards 2019: Watch All The Performances Here

The Soul Train Awards are always a must-watch event, with the show consistently giving roses to the veterans who built the music industry as we know it while showing love to younger, promising artists who carry on the traditions of their predecessors. Look below for the performances from Sunday's event.

SiR ft. D Smoke – "Hair Down," "John Redcorn" SiR was the first major performance of the night. Outfitted in a blue flannel and accompanied by a team of dancers dressed as flight attendants, he performed his Kendrick Lamar-assisted single "Hair Down." There was then a brief moment that highlighted his older brother, Rhythm + Flow winner D. Smoke, at the piano, playing background as SiR performed another Chasing Summer highlight, "John Redcorn."

K. Michelle – "The Rain"

Songwriter/production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were honored for their achievements on Sunday night, and this continued with K. Michelle's performance of "The Rain." The song is a remake of the 1998 New Edition hit "Can You Stand The Rain," which was written by the duo. K. Michelle performed the record in a glowing all-white dress.

Tiana Major9 and EarthGang – "Collide" Tiana Major9 and EarthGang recently released the music video for "Collide," their beautiful new song from the soundtrack for Lena Waithe's upcoming film Queen and Slim. They performed the song tonight, first with EarthGang member Olu performing a spoken word poem written by Lena Waithe, then he and Tiana Major9 intimately sharing space in front of a colorful arrangement of flowers and car rims.

Wale ft. Jeremih and Kelly Price – "On Chill," "Sue Me"

Wale's sixth studio album Wow... That's Crazy was one of the best of 2019, and he got well-deserved recognition at the Soul Train Awards. He and Jeremih rocked his sultry hit "On Chill" before leaving the stage, and in an unexpected twist, he returned to the stage with Kelly Price for a performance of the album's intro "Sue Me."

Queen Naija – "Good Morning Text"

Queen Naija kept it real during her performance of her new single “Good Morning Text.” The singer-songwriter provided power vocals to the stage while looking great doing so. In a soft-off white number, Ms. Najia belted her ballad in style.

Boyz II Men and Stokley Williams – Medley

To kick off the first part of the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tribute, Boyz II Men started with a performance of “Tender Love” (1985), the duo’s written and produced single for Force MDs. Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, and Wanya Morris then moved on to their 1994 hit “On Bended Knee.” But all the aunties weren’t ready for the next performance… After the first dose of nostalgia from the R&B trio, singer Stokley Williams took us even deeper into the 90s with a performance of Mint Condition’s “Pretty Brown Eyes” and a live performance of his 2019 single “She…” setting the tone for the live performances of the night.

Pink Sweat$ – "Honesty"

In one of the better, yet shorter performances of the night, newcomer Pink Sweat$ shared emotive, melodic harmonies from his single "Honesty"

Teamarrr –"Kinda Love"

Filmmaker, director and actor Issa Rae has ventured into music with a new label called Raedio, and at the Soul Train Awards she had an opportunity to present her first signee. Haitian-American singer Teamarrr has a unique voice, and she showcased her talent with a performance of her hit song "Kinda Love."

Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Carl Thomas, Keyshia Cole, Le'Andria Johnson, Anthony Hamilton – Soul Cypher

This year’s Soul Cypher was anointed with some of the most important voices in contemporary R&B. With Erykah Badu and Robert Glasper providing the instrumentals, Carl Thomas, Keyshia Cole, gospel vocalist Le'Andria Johnson and Anthony Hamilton sang passionately and confidently while noting their classic hits. Thomas reworked his jam "I Just Thought You Should Know" while Cole created a mini-universe using songs like "I Should've Cheated," "Last Night" and "Trust and Believe." Next was Sunday's Best winner Le'Andria Johnson, who called on all to rightfully "Call on Jesus" while Hamilton closed out the cypher with a twist on his classic, "Charlene." But before we said goodbye, Badu had to hit a few notes–including a pretty high one.

Yolanda Adams – Medley

Moments after being honored with the Lady of Soul Award for the way she's merged soul and gospel throughout her career, Yolanda Adams blessed the audience with what Kirk Franklin described as her "god-kissed voice." She first performed the uptempo "Victory," and continued into a medley of other songs like "Born This Day," the vulnerable "Open My Heart," "Be Blessed," and "The Battle Is The Lords" before closing her set with a stirring performance of "In The Midst Of It All."

Luke James ft. BJ The Chicago Kid, Ro James – "Go Girl"

Luke James provided ultra nostalgia for his performance of "go girl" with R&B bredrens Ro James and BJ The Chicago Kid. Each of the sultry singers arrived dressed to the nines in fits that paid homage the iconic fashion of the 90s. The track does the same with odes to Martin and more. “It’s a celebratory song that I created with two of my best buds in the business, Ro and BJ. ‘go girl’ is a feeling, an unconventional vibration about a specific woman," James previously told Billboard about the track. "It’s perfectly freeing... as if it came out of a ‘90s classic love song or film.” We totally agree.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tribute

If you call yourself a musician and don’t know Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ discography, you better start doing your research and watch these performances. After delivering a moving acceptence speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award, the songwriter and production duo hit the stage (with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds) to join acts like the Sounds of Blackness for “Optimistic” and The S.O.S. Band for their 1983 classics like the smooth “Just Be Good To Me” and the popularly covered, interpolated, and sampled “Tell Me If You Still Care.” Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal hit the stage for rendition of their 1985 single, “Saturday Love.”

But the real party went down when they reunited with their felliow bandmates of The Time. Morris Day brought the smooth swag in his silver suit and shades as they performed their Prince-produced jam “Jungle Love” (1984), with signature dance and mirror holdin’ hypeman (Jerome Benton) in tow. But what’s a performance by The Time without Morris Day doing the bird dance? Gotta have it every time. It never gets old.

Continue Reading
Singers Ronald Isley (L) and Kim Johnson perform at the "18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards" at the Scottish Rite Auditorium on March 20, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter

Music Sermon: The Soul Train Awards Been Lit, We're Just Late To The Party

Black entertainment's oldest televised awards show has been patiently waiting for us to come back.

As I was watching the 2019 BET Awards, at some point around trying to decipher the difference between DaBaby and Lil Baby, I said – not for the first year – “I’m not the BET Awards demo anymore.” BET’s flagship awards’ aspiration to cover every segment of black entertainment has always stretched it a little thin; current rap and R&B artists, plus legends, plus some gospel, plus a few TV, movie and sports moments, and some social good and politics crowd a run-of-show. But in the last several years – probably due to me moving solidly into the Urban Adult Contemporary demo – watching the BET Awards has been comprised mostly of me tweeting “Who is this child?” while waiting to see maybe two performances and a tribute.

But then, in sweet November, BET gives me my entire two-step life with the Soul Train Awards, where I know (almost) every artist and live for every performance and I can’t even tell you who took an award home because that’s not even the point. The Soul Train Awards is family reunion time: an opportunity for your respected faves to get their props and a platform for soulful new school artists who don’t get mainstream airplay. It’s a night to dance and sing along in your living room. Ain’t no stuntin’, no pretense, no cappin’ (did I use that right?). It’s just a good a** time. So why did it take us so long to embrace it again?

BET has owned the legacy awards show since 2009, but for years the Soul Train Awards seemed a bit forgotten. The timeline wasn’t joining forces to watch the Tom Joyner Cruise Live (Side note: Tom Joyner should absolutely do the Tom Joyner Cruise Live). Over the last four years, however, an aging millennial demographic combined with a drive of ‘90s nostalgia and renewed demand for straight up and down soul music has shined a light on the awards broadcast. Since 2015, the BET ecosystem has also thrown more support behind the show, including moving it from a Centric/BETHer-branded property to a BET proper event and giving it the same Viacom-wide simulcast as the BET Awards. Production values, talent bookings, and show elements keep rising, and the TL (timeline) is paying attention. This Sunday, the Soul Train Awards will air live for the first time (the show is usually taped a week or two in advance), with Black America’s favorite on and off-screen besties Tisha Cambell and Tichina Arnold hosting for the second year.

It’s by grace, though, that the Soul Train Awards is even still here for us to enjoy. The show that launched as the only televised black entertainment awards ceremony started fading during black music’s growing mainstream dominance, and then was lost in the shadow of the bigger and splashier BET Awards. Superstar artists stopped attending, because teams no doubt felt like their presence wouldn’t move the needle on sales, and it became the Old Heads Awards. Quietly, though, the Soul Train Awards has been a ratings driver for BET since the network acquired the show; the rest of us (including talent) are just finally catching up. And we should be ashamed it took so long! This specific celebration of black entertainment is as important now as it was when launched over 30 years ago — almost more so — for the very reason that it’s not just a show packed with hottest, newest, latest. But to appreciate the show’s legacy and staying power, we should look back at its history.

In 1987, Soul Train founder Don Cornelius decided it was time to elevate his 20-plus-year-old platform to another level. At the time, the major entertainment awards weren’t properly acknowledging black artists. The handful that had reached massive pop success – Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston – were recognized and honored.

But in the '80s, the soul and R&B world was still vast and wide.

Cornelius decided it was time to create a night of celebration and excellence which, like Soul Train itself, was created for us, by us. He insisted at the time, “Black music is too big and too powerful not to have its own awards show. It’s overdue.” The Soul Train Awards was born.

Not only did Cornelius want to create a space for our artists who were overlooked by award shows like the Grammys and the AMAs, but also an awards system that didn’t hang on politics, or follow the same long-time criticisms of Grammy voting; selections by a group of people who just vote on the names they know. The voting block for the Soul Train Awards was made up of black retailers, radio programmers and artists themselves, to grant the prized Soul Train trophy design based on African sculpture. But the Soul Train Awards weren’t even meant to be about the awards; they were about highlighting our talent – current and established – featuring special legacy honors, originating the concept of tributes via performances instead of just film packages, and putting together super-performances of key artists across genres. This was our showcase.

For the first eight years of the show, the hosting panel was a mix of Dionne Warwick, Luther Vandross, and Patti Labelle, and our biggest and best showed up in their award finery ready to celebrate and be celebrated. When the Grammys weren’t yet making room for hip-hop, Don gave it a little light (not a whole lot, but a little), and the Soul Train Awards honored black entertainment across the board, not just music.

In fact, until 1994, the Soul Train Awards were the only televised black entertainment awards. The Source Awards debuted as the first hip-hop awards show in 1994, The NAACP Image Awards were first televised in 1995, and that same year the female-artist heavy landscape prompted the creation of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Awards. For the first several years, the black entertainment community turned out in numbers for their long-awaited party. The first year, black luminaries from Magic Johnson to Miles Davis to Stevie Wonder to Don King to Run DMC to Isaac Hayes were in the building. In 1990, Michael Jackson snubbed the Grammys but showed up at the Soul Train. Whitney Houston was even famously booed at the Soul Train Awards because the crowd felt she was too pop, and this was not a pop space. This was a forum for soul.

But like many of our most important early platforms for black culture, progress eventually rendered almost of these celebrations obsolete. As black music crossed over, more black artists were being recognized by the mainstream, and black culture became the culture, the entire Soul Train brand felt outdated and unnecessary. By 2000, the awards were in a bit of an identity crisis. After twelve years at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, the show bounced to a new location every year for the next six years. Cornelius started having trouble getting stars to commit to the awards because they were held within a month of the Grammys.

Then, in 2001, BET debuted their award show: a younger, hipper, and larger budget version of the Soul Train Awards that adopted virtually the same format, with Viacom promotional power and a dedicated channel and time slot (unlike Soul Train’s syndication) to their advantage.

In 2006, Soul Train signed off after 35 years and over 1,100 episodes as the longest-running nationally syndicated TV program in America at the time. Around the same time, the syndication company for the show and the awards, Tribune Entertainment, changed hands and shut down. In 2007, the Soul Train Awards’ biggest winners of the night, like Beyoncè and John Legend, didn’t bother to show. Finally, in 2008, there were no Soul Train Awards. And had that been the end of the line for the show for good, there probably would have been very little complaints or rumblings – we’d stopped paying attention, anyway. BET seemed to have all Black excellence bases on lock with the BET Awards, the BET Honors (which debuted in February of 2008), and the BET Hip-Hop Awards (2006). But fortunately, someone at the company had the good sense not to let the Soul Train Awards die.

As part of BET on Jazz’s rebrand to Centric (now BETHer), BET acquired the Soul Train Awards and revamped the program to fully embrace its old head’ness, perfect for the channel geared towards an older demo with a soul music focus. They moved the awards from LA to Georgia (it has since moved to Vegas), changed the date to November, got Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson coming straight off of Hustle & Flow to host, and gave tributes to Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band, Chaka Khan and Motown. That’s a party.

Now, here’s the part we probably haven’t been paying attention to: since the very first year in 2009, the Soul Train Awards has been a fourth-quarter ratings hit for BET. In fact, 2009 was the award show’s highest-rated broadcast ever in its history. Media and consumer trends often focus on the young, overlooking that while the 35-and-older set may not be as reactive, we’re loyal. Especially with music and entertainment (a look at any number of R&B theater tours featuring people who haven’t released an album in ages will tell you that). The cultural powers-that-be finally seem to be catching on: things that were long considered “Auntie & Uncle” territory, like Essence Festival, are hitting the hip radar. The Soul Train Awards is part of that wave. Also – and this is my personal, not data-supported, get-off-my-lawn opinion – there’s a lightness and fun with good ol’ R&B, soul and even older hip-hop that you just don’t get from the pull-your-panties to the side R&B and mumble rap of the last 10 years.

The BET Awards is now at a similar crossroads as the Soul Train Awards was in the early 00s: major talent is skipping the show, and the network is challenged to put together a cohesive program while trying to serve all demos. After two years of plunging ratings, the broadcast finally seems to have found balance again in 2019. But still, I’m not personally here for all the Lil’s, the YBNs and YGs and other letter configurations, and Babies and whatnot. I need music that works as a backdrop for brown liquor in red solo cups, please. But as viewers and fans, we also have to check ourselves on our awards show criticisms. Complaints amplify every year around the Grammys, AMAs and the like that we need to give less weight to mainstream awards and celebrate our own, ourselves, which is exactly what Don Cornelius and then Bob Johnson and team set out to do. During the BET Awards, though, there are gripes about the diversity and quality of talent, content, and production. There was even a period of Black Twitter referring to them as the “EBT Awards.” Criticism is often valid, but straight disdain isn’t. Also every year, there are cries about how we need more and different awards shows. Meanwhile, Soul Train’s been right there, chillin’, with your old school faves and your burgeoning soul stars. I’m ok with knowing I’m not the right in the pocket of the BET Awards demo anymore, but that means I’m going to support the Soul Train Awards with all my Auntie might because black music and black culture need the intergenerational love and community that the Soul Train Awards represent.

Continue Reading
Getty Images

Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity, to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize aTyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films, or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, its in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit--even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

Continue Reading

Top Stories