The upcoming French movie called Case Départ, loosely translated into “Going Back,” was written by successful black comedians and TV personalities Thomas Ngijol and Fabrice Eboué, and takes a light-hearted look at slavery. That’s right, a comedy about slavery.
Though the film isn’t even in English, nor does its trailer contain English subtitles, but black film blog Shadow and Act was able to loosely translate the film’s synopsis: Ngijol and Eboué play the two main characters and half brothers, Joel and Régis, who have been sent back in time to 1780 during the Transatlantic slavery period where they are sold as slaves. The brothers then have to work together to find a way to not only escape from the plantation, but to also find a way to return to the present day.
So, to cut right to the chase: is it too soon for jokes about slavery?
As the old saying goes, laughter is the best form of medicine. Not only does it relieve tension, but studies have also shown that laughter helps blood vessels function better. On a societal level, people often resort to laughter as a way to make light of difficult events and situations in their lives. One of the best examples of that phenomenon would be the old Mel Brookes movie The Producers, which follows the misfires of Jewish producers who are trying to produce the play “Springtime for Hitler” in the hopes that it would flop, thus making them rich. However, despite the obvious tastelessness of the musical show, the play is a hit. What this film demonstrates is how in some occasions, even the most cruel and shoddiest of circumstances has the potential to be unexpected funny.
However, there are definitely moments when joking about human tragedy is inappropriate. One example is the recent incident with Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, most notable for appearing on “Jersey Shore.” During a televised celebrity roast, Sorrentino teased that Donald Trump and Snoop Dogg’s ancestors had a lot in common: Trump’s ancestors owned real estate while Snoop’s ancestors were property. Despite his overly bronzed skin, “The Situation” is not a black man and does not share the experiences of a black man in America. Therefore, his making a joke about slavery crosses the line to offensiveness.
Black slavery, and other race-related topics, was and still is a shameful part of world history and it’s something we have yet to truthfully face. As such, there is still a certain amount of tension that underlies these kinds of joking interactions. No one understands this better than comedian Dave Chappelle, who is popular for his satirical, yet controversial look at race relations on his critically acclaimed comedy sketch series “The Chappelle Show.”
While his fans loved quoting his lines and reenacting his impersonations, Chapelle began to question whether or not the show was being socially responsible. The reaction he received from one particular sketch, The Black Pixie, in which Chappelle appeared in black face, was enough to make him walk away from his hit television show all together. In an interview with Oprah, Chappelle said, “I know the difference [between] people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with. Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?”
Blending comedy with race relations is a delicate balance that truthfully few folks have been able to successfully master. If done correctly, comedy has the potential to allow both the comedian and the audience to not only air out grievances, but defuse tensions about various societal injustices. Now whether or not this French film will accomplish this has yet to be seen. But for the record, I do intend on seeing this movie. The plot, even without the subtitles, sounds pretty interesting, and I actually found myself chuckling a couple of times throughout the trailer. However, I hope that these filmmakers were crafty enough with the plot so that the joke doesn’t end up on them.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.