Review: Deray Davis, “How to Act Black”

DeRay Davis loves to say the N-word.



Here’s a partial list of people Davis refers to as “nigga'” on his 1-hour Netflix special “How to Act Black”:

  • Morgan Freeman
  • Kevin Hart
  • John Singleton
  • His gay cousin Carl
  • President Obama
  • President Trump
  • The police officer who pulled him over
  • His mother
  • His daughter
  • Cecil the Gorilla

Maybe I don’t speak hood – half of his N-bombs could easily just be expletives rather than second-person pronouns – maybe he’s saying them like I might exclaim “Fuck!” for emphasis.  But it sure is funny to think of him referring to Donald Trump as “nigga’.”

Dressed in a snazzy suit, having lost weight and grown his hair and beard scruffy, he looks about a million bucks richer than he did on his Def Comedy Jam sets, where he was billed as representing the “voice of the hood.”   Davis is still the voice of the hood, but a more articulate and poised one – the voice the hood deserves, or maybe just the voice that a rich white person needs to make it real and relatable.

Davis remarks on his scruffiness and the differences in perception it generates – when Leo or Brad Pitt grow their beards, he speculates people think they’re between roles; when he does it, Davis is presumed to be “between homes.”  The joke’s on him, though – by co-opting white hipsterism, in addition to the more clipped manner of speaking he has adopted as his star has risen, he no longer reads as the “Chicago hood nigga'” he describes himself as.

That’s the point of the special, though – white casting agents, surrogates for white people in general, come at him with expectations of how to “act blacker,” to the point where he feels trapped between two worlds.

The title of the special hinges on one of these requests by casting agents that he should “act blacker” in an audition to play a Chicago street thug.  Davis goes on a flabbergasted, memorable tear about what it means to “act black” –

  • Acting like you didn’t steal your neighbor’s stuff while you’re still in their house.
  • Acting like you’re rich, when you’re broke.
  • Acting like you’ve only met one of your momma’s boyfriends.
  • Acting like you’re not even trying when people acknowledge your game.

This dichotomy is most poignant when Davis describes his struggle as a parent, wanting his daughter to have a happy and carefree childhood, but still wants her to “have the hood in her.”  He frames the discussion as a conversation about awareness of surroundings that, in Davis’ perfect world, would replace racial profiling and politics.

Davis leaves the racial politics to the likes of Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle – he would rather make fun of himself and his lover-not-a-fighter mix of game and cowardice.  This humane attitude makes him very easy to like, even at his most vain and cocky.  He clearly has oceans of love for the hood, but he has oceans of love for everybody – the police, white people, gay people, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Christian, Jew, Muslim, anyone.  The most political he gets is refusing to mention Donald Trump’s name – he refers to him as “the President Dude” – and even that feels forced.

Davis is also hysterical.  It never stops being funny to hear him refer to Empire castmate Bryshere Gray as “Drip-Drip-Drippity-Drop Nigga’,” and his impression of Terrence Howard is priceless.  He talks about being roommates with Kevin Hart, and joins contemporaries like Dave Chappelle in marveling at Hart’s meteoric rise to superstardom.  Davis is funnier than both of them (not the least when he’s making fun of pre-fame Hart’s tiny shoes).

The other trick Davis mines for hilarious effect is the old ventriloquist knack to talk like he’s underwater – a mix of gargling and rolling his letter R’s.  He uses this to simulate infantile crying when recalling being a child waiting on a whooping from his merciless momma (channeling a bit made famous by Richard Pryor).  He later pulls out the trick when describing waterproof phones as a revolutionary technology for talking to other women behind your girlfriend’s back.  First, he mimics a player phone-macking on a girl while underwater in the pool, that gargly voice making the garbled sweet-talk even more hilarious … and then he mimics the girlfriend swimming furiously up to her submerged boyfriend, gargling “Who the fuck you talking to?!”

These are two of Davis’ favorite subjects – the strange, dangerous magic of a childhood in the hood; and the cat-and-mouse game between controlling girlfriends and their perpetual stray cat men.

It feels weird to write about any of this – I feel racist.

Do I sound racist, praisefully repeating things Deray Davis says in his special?


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