Sunday at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the 11th Annual Roxbury Film Festival will close with a screening of Why We Laugh:Black Comedians on Black Comedy, a documentary on black comedy in America (click here for tickets and info). The documentary is sprawling, covering more than 100 years years stretching back to vaudeville's Bert Williams, the controversial career of Stepin Fetchit and the NAACP's sinking of Amos and Andy on TV, all the way up through Dick Gregory and Flip Wilson in the 60s and 70s, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, the Kings of Comedy, and Dave Chappelle.
Director Robert Townsend and producer/writer Quincy Newell take care to include opposing views about Fetchit and Amos and Andy, along with commentary from comedy legends and stars like Gregory, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, and Paul Mooney as well as prominent figures like author and Princeton professor Cornel West, author, radio host and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, actor Louis Gossett Jr, and producer/director and Boston native Topper Carew.
I spoke with Newell about the film by e-mail this week.
What was the impetus for producing this documentary?
The objective was to chronicle the contributions of our iconic comedians and their impact on American culture as well as the impact America ’s evolving culture had on their perspectives.
How did you decide where to start, where the story began, and where it ended?
We took a chronological approach and tried to focus on comedians that had created seismic shifts in our paradigm through their work.
How do you feel the humor of black America fits with other humors in America?
Each culture has its own lens. I believe that the humor of black America is presented through a lens that is colored with the experiences of being black in America .
How did you decide how to handle the more controversial subjects and eras, like Stepin Fetchit, Amos & Andy?
We just wanted to be honest and thoughtful. While also recognizing the positive contributions.
Do you have any personal thoughts to add on those subjects that weren’t expressed in the film?
It’s a gigantic topic that has so many strains. This film does not paint the entire picture. It simply is intended to open dialogue and shed light on a subject that has not been discussed in this way.
Were there any stories that you wanted to put in the film that didn’t make it, like Pigmeat Markham, Godfrey Cambridge, or about the “chitlin’ circuit?”
Absolutely. There were so many stories and individuals that we wanted to include. The film would’ve been 2 days long if we did what we really wanted to do. (smile)
Not really a question, but I wanted to say I was glad to see so much on Dick Gregory. I feel he doesn’t get the mainstream recognition he deserves as pioneer in stand-up.
How important were the non-comic voices in the film – the members of Congress and the professors and such?
Well, it was important to get different perspectives and points of view. I think they help to complete the thought and bring a socio-political view to the forefront.
What are the plans for the film past this festival?
There will be a broadcast premiere on Showtime as well as a limited theatrical release in 2010. I believe this is an important document that deserves to be shared with anyone who will listen.