Great Sketches #4: “The Wrath of Farrakhan”, In Living Color

What makes a sketch dated? It might seem like there’s no surer way to give your work a sell-by date than by inserting references and characters that are ripped from the headlines of a moment, but I would argue that ideas and attitudes age worse than names and events. As a recent revisit to the Al Gore “lock box” bit has proved for me, SNL’s best political bits can still funny even years after their original air date if there’s a deeper logic and purpose under all the jabs.

Take In Living Color, the 90’s show that helped launch the Wayans family, David Alan Grier and Jim Carrey into stardom. On the one hand, many of its sketches traffic in jokes that trade on gay, sexist and racial stereotypes in a way that have not aged very well, even though this was hardly the only show to benefit from this. At the same time, we have sketches like “The Wrath of Farrakhan”, which nods to some positively ancient cultural figures (by today’s standards) while staging a surprisingly relevant parable about inequality in entertainment.

To understand this sketch, you really only need to be familiar with two things: original series Star Trek and Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan (and if you don’t know the latter, the sketch helpfully explains who he is for you). I imagine that once the writers noticed the inescapable pun with Wrath of Khan the rest kind of fell into place. In 2018, this bit fits comfortably alongside the Black Mirror “USS Callister” episode and the ongoing conversations about privilege and representation, while still being quite funny and including such memorable lines as “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” pronounced with a soft “f”.

The sketch itself pits the original Enterprise crew, led, of course, by Captain James T. Kirk (Jim Carrey) against the minister (Damon Wayans) and two of his cohorts, who beam aboard to confront the captain about the oppression on his bridge. The real life Farrakhan has said plenty of objectionable things, and other In Living Color sketches would poke fun at his paranoia and antisemitic rhetoric. Here, though, Wayans’ impression is merely a device (albeit a fun one) to voice problems that many people of color have likely had with Star Trek’s supposedly “utopian” vision of the future from the beginning. Or, as Wayans puts it, “it is that same lie that’s got white boys rapping and the Fat Boys acting“.

As Carrey’s Kirk overacts to superhuman levels, Farrakhan stokes mutiny among the crew. It’s hard to argue against him. For example, if Lieutenant Uhura (played by Kim Wayans here) is an equal member of the team, how come she’s mainly a glorified secretary (and, as the sketch puts it “occasional chocolate fantasy”) for Kirk? In its original airdate, the character of Uhura was seen as revolutionary, but in hindsight much of her significance comes from simply existing rather than being given much agency as a character, at least until later media.

The same goes for Mr. Sulu (Kipp Shiotai), who lists off the ethnic slurs he’s had to endure under the Kirk regime. While the humor here does depend on objectifying women and assigning racial cliches to Uhura and Sulu (sassy black woman and “horny Asian brother”, respectively), you could argue that this is all part of the point. Kirk is perfectly fine with stereotyping his crew as long as they don’t challenge his authority. Plus, Sulu’s despair at being denied the chance to “do the nasty” with any of the show’s infamous sexy alien ladies echoes more recent concerns about the lack of romantic lead roles for Asian men.

Once David Alan Grier’s Spock calls him a “Caucasoid”, Kirk makes one last attempt to get Farrakhan off his ship, but ends up whimpering like a little child and running off to his room as the minister takes the captain’s seat. Even in a parody, even knowing the baggage of Farrakhan, the final sight of the spaceship traveling to Sylvia’s Soul Food Shack with the hypermasculine Kirk dethroned is strangely inspiring.

I always feel like I’m killing the actual jokes in these sketches by analyzing them. There’s so much to be said about this piece before you even touch on how funny it is. Damon Wayans’ Farrakhan would reappear several times in future In Living Color episodes, which makes the audience’s immediate response to him all the more remarkable. They’re not laughing because they’ve seen his other sketches, since this was only the show’s second episode. And all the supporting actors are great, from Farrakhan’s call-and-response cronies to the rest of the Enterprise crew.  There’s also a neat inversion going on here: the original Captain Kirk was always lauded for being human and emotional, but Carrey’s version acts more like a scrawny malfunctioning robot than a real person. Naturally, this lets the normally “alien” Spock come across as a level-headed dude with some good points to make (at least one person involved with this must have been a legit Trek fan, too, for there to be a reference to Nimoy being “a better director” than Shatner).

Trek heads have long rhapsodized about creator’s Gene Roddenberry’s supposedly hopeful, multiracial vision of the future, but that doesn’t mean it’s always been perceived the same way by every viewer. A sketch like this reminds us that Hollywood often expects people of color to be satisfied with negligible progress while it insists on putting white people front and center. In its own way, this sketch is both subversive and optimistic, and damn if it doesn’t make me feel like there’s still a chance to use science fiction  to empower the less privileged. Wouldn’t that be Vulcan grand?

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