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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

Black, Fat and Greasy
By By Esther Iverem— Editor and Film Critic
Feb 9, 2007, 13:40

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Perhaps the sensible thing is to ignore “Norbit,” Eddie Murphy’s latest salvo hurled at women who share his skin color. But as a Hollywood production with a big promotion budget, “Norbit” is hard to ignore.

Our forced exposure to this film and its ideas does not begin if and when we decide to see it. Rather, the story of Norbit begins at the mall, inside our cars, on the bus or as we walk down the street. We are accosted by the movie's promotion poster, which features a 300 pound-plus Black woman, really Eddie Murphy in a fat suit, wearing a hot pink negligee trimmed with feathers. The woman is captured in a side view that highlights her enormous right arm, thigh, hip and, we are left to imagine if she was photographed from the rear, her humongous bare buttocks.

She is a polished and sexualized freak show—(made even freakier because we know this is really a Black actor castrating himself onscreen.) Her short hair is “did.” Her flawless make-up does not mask a teethy, hideous smile. Her fingernails are manicured and claw-like as she sits atop her prey—a skinny, boyish and bookish man, also Eddie Murphy, who looks toward us with a terrified and pleading expression. This is what “Norbit” is about— the capture and captivity of a gentle and good-hearted Black man named Norbit by a morbidly obese, mean and nasty Black woman named Rasputia.

There are a few funny moments in the film, like when Rasputia’s enormity implodes the kiddie moonbounce but, all-in-all, Norbit is tasteless and filled with tired racial and woman-hating humor. The fact that Rasputia is fat is not so much the joke as the fact that she is a fat (and Black) woman. She is made into a monster and a beast—referred to as “a guerilla” and referenced by a piece of poultry fashioned to look like a naked Black butt (like the one hinted at in the movie poster). Her depiction is of course in contrast to the saint-like rendering of Norbit’s childhood sweetheart, played by bi-racial, light-skinned actress Thandie Newton.

An overweight man in society and in the movies is given a pass for obesity. He can be referred to admiringly as “a big man.” It is only when artists and celebrities such as Luther Vandross, Ruben Studdard, Biggie Smalls or Heavy D get too big or too heavy that tongues start wagging. Murphy’s rotund character Sherman Klump in both “The Nutty Professor and “The Klumps” was notable for his kindness and for the fact that, despite his size, he was loved by two hotties, played by Janet Jackson and Jada Pinkett.

Though “Norbit” is defended as comedy-as-usual, it is actually precedent-setting in its level Black obesity burlesque—even in these times when such burlesque is increasingly common. Martin Lawrence’s “Big Momma’s House” was repugnant, noted so at the time, for its stripping and mutilation of the tired but triumphant bodies of elderly Black women. Interestingly, in “Shallow Hal,” a comedy about a White man who sees a very obese White woman as thin and lovely, the large White woman’s body is not focused on in a manner that, unlike Rasputia’s depiction, graphically and repeatedly reveals rolls of her naked flesh.

The fat Black woman or even the average-sized Black woman’s body, has become such a standard joke in recent movies, TV shows and commercials that we are asked by the White filmmakers of “Norbit,” as well as the film's apologists, to accept it. This exploitation has been going on for a long time. Even Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actress to win an Academy Award, in 1939 for “Gone with the Wind, was forbidden by her mammy-centric studio contract to lose weight. Jennifer Hudson, an Oscar nominee this year for “Dreamgirls,” was forced to gain weight to play her part.

Coincidentally, a recent foul commercial featured Eddie Murphy’s brother, Charlie Murphy, who is credited with some writing for “Norbit.” The commercial, for Boost Mobile, features a Black woman with “bionic butt cheeks” who short-circuits her butt while dancing, falls down in an unconscious heap and is stepped over by a White woman on her way into a VIP lounge. (Read the comments by Tyechia Thompson on out letters channel.) The commercial ends when Murphy calls a maintenance crew to “clean all that butt up off the floor.”

It would be great to ignore films like “Norbit” but that would be like not reporting a rape. We can’t say it’s just a joke (but get all riled by Michael Richards using the N-word or Joe Biden calling Barack Obama “mainstream” and “clean”). We can’t stop ignoring films like “Norbit” until they stop ignoring us as human beings.

Esther Iverem’s forthcoming book is We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007).

© Copyright 2006

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