Friday, May 1, 2009

Crossing the Line: Multiracial Comedians

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Thought-Provoking Documentary Features Ethnically-Mixed Stand-Up Comics

Did Seinfeld’s Michael Richards cross a line from comedy to cruelty when he tried to handle a heckler by simply referring to the man by the N-word repeatedly? He ostensibly felt very comfortable venturing there, being a member of the white majority.
But how does society decide what is appropriate subject-matter for comics to explore on stage? According to HBO’s Bill Maher, “Being able to say the worst thing is what America is all about,” while comedian Carlos Mencia says, “If you can’t tell the joke in front of the people it’s about, you don’t have a right to tell the joke.” These two divergent perspectives are curious juxtaposed at the opening of Crossing the Line, a frank examination of humor from the point of view of some funny, insightful and often brutally-honest, multiracial comedians.
This thought-provoking documentary marks the brilliant directorial debut of Teja Arboleda, who teaches course in Media Production and Race Relations at the New England Institute for the Arts in Brookline, Massachusetts. Professor Arboleda, who is himself a combination of African-American, Native-American, Filipino-Chinese and German-Danish, started this project the day Michael Richards had his aforementioned meltdown.
Teja began by offering a platform to dozens of entertainers from backgrounds about as diverse as his own. Make no mistake, American culture looks very different when filtered through the lens of these folks, such as the amusing Kevin Barber, whose maternal grandfather was a Ku Klux Klansman while his father was a Black Panther. Then there’s Tessie Chu, who’s Irish, Chinese and Filipino, and is determined to break the mold of the submissive Asian woman.
Kate Rigg, who refers to herself as a “Rice Cracker” because she’s half- white and half-Asian, complains that people expect her to identify with everything but being mixed. Ironically, Japanese-Yugoslavian Mike Moto says that neither of his ethnic groups seems particularly interested in embracing him.
Among the experts consulted is Professor Reginald Daniel of UC Santa Barbara. He observes that, “When people articulate multi-raciality in comedy, it adds a new voice that has never been available before.” Narrator Arboleda sees “multi-racial humor” as a “powerful tool” because of its untapped potential to “tackle and tickle the unlimited spectrum of our imagination.”
What makes Crossing the Line so valuable is its refreshingly novel takes on everything from reparations (How about we get to enslave white people for the next 100 years?) to bigotry (“Racism is built on the fiction of racial superiority.”) to the source of humor (“I think funny comes from pain, and there’s a level of pain that comes from being mixed.”) A cinematic treat is likely to leave you eager to see what Professor Arboleda cooks up next.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 58 minutes
Studio: Entertaining Diversity

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