A half-century after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, segregation is alive and well on American television, with whites hogging the major networks and blacks relegated to channels like UPN, the WB and BET. That we inhabit two separate worlds is indicated by the fact that, back when "Seinfeld" was America's favorite TV show, it placed 54th among black viewers. First place went to Fox's "Between Brothers," which most whites hadn't even heard of. Though all but invisible to the mainstream media, a whole new Chitlin' Circuit has formed around such shows as "Def Comedy Jam," "Comic View" and "Showtime at the Apollo"--standup-comedy showcases that have led to such sitcoms as "Martin," "The Hughleys" and "The Steve Harvey Show." And when four of those comedians, billed as The Original Kings of Comedy, took their acts on the road a few years ago, they made show-business history, drawing record crowds and almost no mainstream press. The latter must have been infuriating, but, as Billie Holiday put it, God bless the child that's got his own. Especially the child that's got his own movie. With his director's cap on, Spike Lee caught up with the Original Kings--Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac--in Charlotte, N.C., and the result is one of the most exhilarating concert films since Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Emceed by Harvey, who even looks like Pryor, the show treads through territory first opened up by Pryor 25 years ago--lots and lots of jokes about the differences between whites and blacks--but these guys sure know how to work an audience. And the event itself, given a nice goose by Lee's jitterbugging camera style, is like a glorious night on the town, the people of Charlotte having spent all day at the barbers and the beauty shops, according to Harvey. He leads things off with, among other things, a riff on Titanic (if the band had been black, Harvey says, they would not have played on), then hands the mike over to Hughley, who shares with us his idea of an extreme sport: "pulling out my wallet and hoping I don't get shot 41 times."
That reference to Amadou Diallo is one of the few times the show is explicitly political, but it's implicitly political from the get-go--a bracing view of the world from men who have climbed out of poverty but haven't forgotten those they left behind. "We know how to be broke," Hughley says about black people, and this America-from-the-bottom-up perspective carried me through the movie's repetitious passages, not to mention its sexist and homophobic passages. When Cedric the Entertainer--a likable comedian who moves his heft around the stage with real grace--comes out and starts a riff on soul music, it's a weak echo of Harvey's masterful anti-rap rap. But then, just as Original Kings seems to be running low on originality, Bernie Mac appears, delivering a dangerously/deliriously un-PC spiel on how to treat children, followed by an illuminating peroration on the use of "motherfucka" as noun and adjective. Mac's anger, whatever its source, brings out these biblical cadences, as if his whole routine were the dark musings of a vengeful God. All I can say is, Hallelujah.