In this Key & Peele sketch, Keegan-Michael Key plays a son eulogizing his father, Otis Carmichael (played by Jordan Peele). The son shares something the gathered friends and family didn’t know: as a younger man, Otis worked as an actor in Hollywood. The son has found his father’s acting reel and, though he hasn’t yet seen it, wants to show it to the mourners. It will be “fun.” What proceeds is farce. The mourners are met with stereotype after stereotype: a pie stealing “coon,” an obsequious shoeshine “tom,” and a cannibal “native” (complete with “ooga booga” dialogue). At each racist portrayal, they gasp in increasingly shocked tones until finally a man stands up and proclaims, “Oh hell no!” With the mourners aghast, the dumbfounded son slips the reel into the casket—“dad’s Hollywood secret” goes with him to the grave.
One way to read the sketch is as a blow at the mythology of faultless respectability surrounding civil rights leaders. That’s certainly there, but Key & Peele is also doing something more complicated with media history. Otis’s performances, while caricatures, are not really that far from reality, evoking the kinds of roles available to Black actors in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s (such as Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland). Yet within the caricatures is an element of self-awareness. At the end of the shoeshine clip, Otis’s deep guffaw turns into a strained whimper, an indication of pained inner conflict. Key & Peele thus allow Otis’s conflict to pierce his otherwise compromised performance, a small gesture that perhaps allows them—and us—to imagine a future in which he becomes a revered civil rights leader. It also permits them to engage with a complex history of Black cinematic comedy that takes up the history of African Americans in Hollywood cinema. In this sense, Key & Peele follows a legacy that most recently includes Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor, but goes beyond that to the Black film boom of the 70s and the Race films of Spencer Williams of the 40s; arguably, it is found even in the early Race films of the teens and 20s. That a popular television show does this kind of work matters for us as media educators. In this context, our role is to help students become critically engaged agents within popular culture, aware of its histories and thus better equipped to understand its complexities.