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Murphy’s “Norbit”—Just a Good Laugh?

February 27, 2007

You may have heard the film “Norbit” was number one at the box office on its opening weekend earlier this month. You’ve probably also seen the ads at bus stop benches and on billboards: the image of an obese black woman wearing pink lingerie and a garish smile crushing a frightened black man. Norbit—played by Eddie Murphy—speaks with a lisp and wears nerdy, over-sized plastic glasses. As a young boy he meets Rasputia—who’s obese and domineering even as a child. “Now you have a girlfriend,” she announces after rescuing him from class bullies. “Get your black [blankety-blank] up, and hold my hand.” Rasputia (also played by Murphy) is cruel and selfish and abusive. She sucker punches him in the face and cheats on him. Even on her wedding day, she is so disgusting that the congregation gasps in horror when her veil is lifted at “kiss the bride.” Rasputia is so over-the-top offensive, so beyond crude, that one has to wonder: When Eddie Murphy wrote the script with his brother Charles, what were these black men thinking? Don't they know about the “myth of black matriarchy?” An infamous theory by Senator Patrick Moynihan, it suggested that black women’s overbearing strength was the root cause of the breakup of black families. It was met with a wave of protest from African American scholars and activists that continues even today. Don’t they know that many black women today will never marry in their lifetime, and that Moynihan's implied reasoning remains unspoken all around us: that she is so unfeminine and animalistic, this dark-skinned thing—so emasculating to the male ego—that no sane black man could possibly want her. It’s also as though the Murphy brothers were unaware that in fact, more than 80 percent of black women over the age of 40 are today either overweight or obese—and that this too is the cause of suffering on an epidemic scale—from type II diabetes to high blood pressure, to heart failure and early strokes. And of course, Norbit's true love in the movie (played by a pencil-thin Thandie Newton) had to be light-skinned with long, straight hair. It’s another easy jab around color, and the still widespread belief that light skin is more desirable. But then again, maybe Eddie and Charles Murphy did know all of this. If we believe that humor is our salvation in times of tragedy, maybe he was just trying to do his job. Looking for points of pain and trying to make them funny. He failed, but still. Maybe that’s why the plus-size black woman in front of me in the theater, who guffawed so loud, surprised me. She told me after the movie that she was actually disappointed and just trying to make the best of a bad situation. It was the end of a long, hard day, and she just needed a good laugh. Kristal Brent Zook is the author of Black Women's Lives: Stories of Power and Pain. This essay originally aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”