There has been a decades-long stigma in the African-American community on men who wear dresses. The topic surrounding sexuality and cross-dressing continues as the gender lines blur. For some, wearing a dress does not necessarily define their sexuality. In Hollywood, many Black male comedians have portrayed feminine characters that wear dresses while on television or the big screen. While these classic characters like “Sheneneh Jenkins” from Martin and “Madea” have long brought joy to many fans, some have deemed these portrayals emasculating to the Black man.
Many can recall the long-awaited Dave Chappelle interview on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show where he was candid on his reasons for walking away from millions of dollars. Within the interview, the comedian detailed an experience while presumably shooting the film Blue Streak, which he co-starred along with Martin Lawrence.
Chappelle gave an account to Oprah Winfrey where everyone from the film’s writers to the producers attempted to persuade him to wear a dress. The comedian, who shared that he was uncomfortable with doing so, described the insistent attempts from every party who said that “all of the greats did it” at some point. But no matter how hard they tried, Dave Chappelle would not budge.
But the experience led Chappelle, who admits he’s “a conspiracy theorist to a degree,” to feel as though there was an agenda to get prominent African-American actors in Hollywood to wear women’s clothing. The A Star Is Born actor begs the question, “All the comics that I’ve seen, you know, strong brothers. Why they be putting us in these dresses?”
While Chappelle is entitled to his stance, not wanting to wear women’s clothing, many others have opted to do so. For example, actor, and comedian, Eddie Murphy has done so on more than one occasion in notable films such as The Nutty Professor and its sequel, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Norbit.
In The Nutty Professor, Eddie Murphy played multiple characters that included the roles of “Mama Klump” and “Grandma Ida Mae Jenson.” The film was a massive success, with Murphy’s performances garnering enormous praise from critics. Fans went to the theaters in droves to see the movie, bringing in $274 million against a $54 million budget. Due to the film’s success, a sequel was ordered, and in the year 2000, fans went again and helped the film to accrue $166 million worldwide successfully.
Once again, Eddie Murphy appeared as a female character in the film Norbit. His portrayal as the overweight “Rasputia” would be often seen in skimpy clothing or other flamboyant dresses. Despite receiving negative reviews from critics, fans seemed to think otherwise, and the film went on to be a box office success. Norbit brought in almost $160 million, which was one hundred million dollars in profits.
Sibling actors Shawn and Marlon Wayans crafted a story alongside their brother, Keenen Ivory Wayans, that would bring stellar success. The 2004 film White Chicks was the product of their coming together, and the story involved the brothers portraying undercover cops who cross-dress and use whiteface to pose as white women. With a $37 million budget, the film brought in over $113 million at the box office. There have also been talks of an upcoming sequel, although it remains unconfirmed.
Following his memorable stint as “Shenehneh Jenkins” on the 90s classic television show Martin, comedian Martin Lawrence reprised his cross-dressing capabilities in the 2000 film Big Momma’s House. The film was a hit with fans, who came to the theaters in droves and allowed the film to reach over $174 million worldwide. Lawrence starred in its sequels, Big Momma’s House 2 and Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.
Other actors like Chris Tucker, Wesley Snipes, Tracy Morgan, and Ving Rhames have all been in successful films where they’ve cross-dressed. Tyler Perry has famously brought the “Madea” character to life and seen massive success from his stage plays and subsequent films. Perry has amassed a cult following that supports his many efforts, thanks to the “Madea” character, but has also developed a slew of critics. One of his loudest and most famous critics has been Spike Lee.
Despite the criticism, Tyler Perry insists that he is secure and owns his choices. While speaking to rapper T.I. on his ExpediTIously podcast, Perry discussed Chappelle’s comments on African-American comedians cross-dressing in films. “…If that is the case in Hollywood, then okay. That’s the case. But you gotta understand, that’s not my case,” the Madea Goes To Jail star said. “Nobody owned that dress but me […] a $2 billion franchise, nobody told me to put it on. Nobody makes me put it on. It was all on stage. [A] black man owned the whole show. It was my choice.”