From starring in a sitcom as a black, fat woman in The Parkers to playing Ma Rainey in Bessie — Mo’Nique’s whole career has been riddled with these kind of transgressions.
One of the most radical images I’ve seen produced by the comedy world was Mo’Nique’s comedy special I Could’ve Been Your Cellmate. It is a comedy special where Mo’Nique interviews female cellmates and also performs for them in a prison orange get-up. The special is hilarious, but it feels dangerous. Dangerous because this was unexamined territory. This special came out in 2007, six years before the debut of Orange is the New Black. This was a star that looks like nothing we were used to seeing, with an audience we were not used to seeing engaged, at a location usually on filmed for dramatic purposes, not comedy. The most impressive moment for me is the one of honesty where she reiterates that she could’ve been their cellmate throughout the program; that nothing but one mistake is preventing her from being in audience, not on stage.
Mo’Nique’s whole career has been riddled with these kind of transgressions. From starring in a sitcom as a black, fat woman in The Parkers to breathing life into lesbian jazz legend, Ma Rainey in Bessie. Mo’Nique produced and co-starred in Blackbird, a film that dealt with queer themes in the black community. She is an original Queen of Comedy. And, of course, she won the Oscar for her brilliant dramatic role as the abusive and disturbed mother in Precious. Mo’Nique has always seemed to be committed to telling radical black stories and creating transgressive black images. Mo’Nique is the winner of an Oscar, an NAACP Image Award, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, amongst many, many others. She is the most decorated comedian in the business and she has earned that title because of her commitment to merge radical storytelling with entertainment. This is why Hollywood blackballing and/or underpaying Mo’Nique isn’t just to sabotage her, it is to tame her.
Black people’s ability to tell stories is paramount. I often think about Toni Morrison musing about her childhood and how the central activity in her family gatherings was telling stories. They would all gather and stories would be told and the challenge would be to tell it in an exciting way, in your way. The telling of stories, fictional stories and recounting memories were central in my journey to becoming a writer, as well. And this is true for much of the black diaspora from the Haitian invention of zombies and mermaids to the story of Igbo Landing that was a folktale originating in Savannah, Georgia to the ; the story has helped us imagine the unimaginable (re: freedom) and sustain us.
This is why when Mo’Nique, after being low-balled by Netflix, called for a protest I knew this should not just be framed as a rich person’s problem. After being offered $500,000 for a special, she attempted to renegotiate and was blocked. She cited comedians like Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock that were offered millions and asked why in comparison her offer was so low? Netflix responded that all three had more anticipation around their projects than she had. It felt personal and familiar. The easier way to problematize this as celebrity ego and entitlement gone wild, but that would be reductive to what is really be told about the black story: artists like Mo’Nique should not be empowered.
Mo’Nique co-produced Blackbird, a coming-of-age story about a black gay man. I think the creation of the brilliant Moonlight would not be possible without Blackbird serving as a type of gauge of public interest and example about how queer black topics can show up in films. These are the types of projects Mo’Nique has shown interest in creating: films about black people that do not fit into respectability boxes and fail a slew of white supremacist standards. And we know this place.
We know that Zora Neale Hurston died without money and her stories still unread because there was a dominant power that deemed Hurston’s stories unworthy because she centered black women. We know the difficulty Lorraine Hansberry faced to produce A Raisin in the Sun because she was interested in centering regular, poor black folks and the complexity of their lives without the tropes seen in mainstream films like the mammy or the lazy coon.
This constant decision to silence certain black folks from having is an assault on our ability to tell stories. In this current celebrity-centric culture, it is to easy to forget that Hollywood is not supposed to be a town of celebrities, but artists. Hollywood is a place filled with artists interested in telling stories and assisting in the journey of those stories materializing.
Mo’Nique being blackballed and underpaid is a clear patriarchal white supremacist capitalist message that fat black woman can not be empowered because the work they might produce will not serve the gaze of the people we are most interested in serving. The message is, if Mo’Nique is not willing to shrink herself and receive crumbs for her work she should be smudged out because Hollywood blackballing and/or underpaying Mo’Nique isn’t just to sabotage her, it is to tame her.
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The mission is not to only tame Mo’Nique, but to tame others who are not willing to participate in the compromise of telling our stories. It is the goal of these public power plays to declaw black artists interested in creating content that pushes the narrative and the images of ourselves forward and wide. It is a war on the black story.
I am brought back to Mo’Nique’s comedy special and how the reframe was “I could be you.” And that awareness and grace echoes throughout my mind as I see this moment play out. We may not be negotiating millions or even thousands, but the core of the story that is domination culture’s ability to control the stories we tell and the characters we produce is one that is an artistic threat to all black people that create and consume art.
We should all be concerned.
Myles E. Johnson is a Brooklyn, New York-based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.