Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Laugh But It's True (2011)

Most Americans would know Trevor Noah as the guy who took over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  I had never heard of Noah before the official announcement.  Before hosting The Daily Show, Noah was a stand-up comedian in South Africa.  He was born to a Xhosa mother and Swiss father that couldn’t marry under South Africa’s apartheid laws.  Noah’s father couldn’t even acknowledge that he was the child was his.

This documentary was made before Noah had assumed his duties on The Daily Show.  The bulk of the film shows the months leading up to his solo show, Daywalker.  He talks about what it was like to grow up not able to acknowledge his racial heritage.  His mother posed as his father’s maid/housekeeper so that they could all live together.

Noah had only been a comedian for two years before doing the solo show.  To some, this seemed arrogant.  However, Noah had risen to fame in South Africa rapidly.  Being what we would call multiracial, it put him in a position to draw a wider crowd.  He even comments on how he’s referred to as colored in South Africa, yet is told not to use the term in other countries.

Colored is the official designation for anyone of mixed African and non-African ancestry.  Specifically, it dates back to when Cape Colony was settled by Europeans.  However, it seems to be applied to anyone of mixed heritage.  Noah, himself, identifies more as African than to any specific group.  Since it was an official racial designation of the apartheid government, not everyone is quick to use the term.  It’s also somewhat ambiguous, as lineage can be traced back to places like India and Germany.

The movie is about a comedian doing a comedy show, but isn’t necessarily a comedy, itself.  The documentary shows where Trevor Noah came from and how his career there was complicated.  South Africa didn’t have a big comedy scene at the time.  (It wasn’t uncommon for a comedian to perform at music venues.)  Noah talks of wanting to leave South Africa, which he’d get to do eventually.

He also talks about how race is complicated in South Africa and abroad.  Every time I see or read something on South Africa, I learn something.  My view is limited by what I learned in high school and college, which was more than 20 years ago.  It’s a complicated and difficult issue in any country.  However, in South Africa, laws had only been repealed 15 years prior.  (Apartheid ended in 1994.  I believe that the footage was filmed in 2009, even though the movie was first released in 2011.)

Laws are a tool.  You can pass and repeal all the laws you want, but the underlying sentiment will still be there.  Comedians can help us deal with these issues.  Trevor Noah found himself in a unique position to help South Africans acknowledge part of their history.  (He even has a bit on the progression of post-apartheid presidents.)  I’d definitely recommend watching this, even if you’re not a fan of Trevor Noah or The Daily Show. 

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