In the Spike Lee film Bamboozled a frustrated black TV exec tries to commit career suicide by creating a variety show based on the traditional American minstrel show. As in the Mel Brooks film The Producers, the plan backfires – but never mind that. It got me to thinking – what ever happened to minstrel shows? I mean, it’s pretty obvious why nobody puts them on nowadays – but the form seems to have died out well before the modern civil rights movement got going in the 1950s. So, when was The Last Minstrel Show? And why did they stop doing them?
It seems perverse to mourn the passing of such a blatantly racist tradition. But it has occurred to me that the minstrel show was the only unique form of stage entertainment American culture has ever produced. Stage plays go back to ancient Greece, vaudeville was more or less the same thing as British music-hall, Broadway musicals descended from Old World light opera. Minstrel shows were a distinctly American invention. And now they’re gone.