Dark, biting satire of the television industry, focusing on an Ivy League educated black writer at a major network. Frustrated that his ideas for a "Cosby Show"-esque take on the black family have been rejected by network brass, he devises an outlandish scheme: reviving the minstrel show. This is the hook: Instead of white actors in black face, the show stars black actors in even blacker face. The show becomes an instant smash, but with the success also come repercussions for all involved.
A frustrated African-American TV writer proposes a blackface minstrel show in protest, but to his chagrin it becomes a hit.
- In a New York City residence, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) rises to begin his daily routine. Brushing his teeth, he gives us by voice over a definition of satire. He tells us with the rise of the Internet, video and interactive games, his field as a television writer has seen a drop in popularity. Meanwhile, in a dilapidated building, squatter Womack (Tommy Davidson) wakes up his friend Manray (Savion Glover) for a day of work. This consists of travelling to the CNS (Continental Network System) building where Delacroix works, and Manray tap dancing to entertain the workers. They then collect money from the workers. The men see Delacroix walk by, and ask him for monetary help in the form of work of some kind.
Delacroix walks into a staff meeting late and is immediately castigated by his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport). Dunwitty informs the staff that CNS has poor ratings. He says he wants them to write funnier material, and ends the meeting. In the privacy of his office, Dunwitty tells Delacroix that the material Delacroix's been writing for him seems like it's about white people with black faces. Dunwitty asserts that Delacroix is an "oreo" with his Harvard education, because he won't write a "n----r show."
The next day, Delacroix and his assistant Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett Smith) talk. They've decided Manray is the solution to his problem. Delacroix plans to write a show that will be so "offensive and racist," it will prove his point that the network only wants to see black buffoons on the air. Delacroix simply hopes to be fired so he can be let go of his contract with CNS. Manray and Womack ask at the receptionist's desk for a "Delapoint" and the men working there tell them to step outside. However, Sloan steps into the lobby, sees what's happening, and escorts Manray and Womack to Delacroix's office. Delacroix explains to them that he has an idea for a television pilot, and they can make money with it. His main request is that Manray changes his name to Mantan, in an apparent homage to black character actor Mantan Moreland.
On Sloan's walk home, she runs into her big brother Big Blak Afrika F/K/A Julius (Yasiin Bey). In Sloan's apartment, Julius and Sloan argue about his values, and he tells her to introduce him and his political hip-hop crew, the Mau Maus, to Delacroix.
Delacroix has another meeting with Dunwitty. Delacroix proposes that the network start a variety show called "Mantan: the New Millenium Minstrel Show." Delacroix says that new faces are needed for the show, and has Sloan bring in Manray and Womack. The two men, respectively renamed "Mantan" and "Sleep'n Eat," will exhibit a range of stereotypical traits, Delacroix explains. Sloan is opposed to the proceedings, and suggests that there will be protest of the show they are planning. To seal the package, Manray dances atop a table in front of Dunwitty -- who immediately leaves to try to sell the show's concept to his executive bosses.
Delacroix, Sloan and another woman hold auditions for the show. The first group of people (The Roots) audition to be the show's house band, The Alabama Porch Monkeys. After they perform, a dancer, a vulgar man shouting "I be smackin' my hoes," and a didgeridoo player all audition. The next hopeful is Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), an actor who bungles Shakespearean quotes and proclaims "N----s is a beautiful thing." Sloan's brother's group, the Mau Maus then do a fiery, confrontational performance; Pierre states via voice over that there is no place for them in his plan.
Delacroix looks over a revised script for the show and confronts Dunwitty and his co-writer, Jukka, about their alterations to it that even he finds racially offensive. Delacroix says he won't be responsible for their changes, which Dunwitty says are to make the show funnier. Dunwitty says he knows black people better than Delacroix does, telling him, "Look at all the brothers on the wall" (referring to numerous pictures of famous black men hanging up in Dunwitty's office). Dunwitty tells him not to interrupt them, and Delacroix expresses impotent rage at this before leaving.
A dressed-up Honeycutt steps onto a stage and introduces himself to a TV studio audience. Backstage, Womack and Manray create blackface from burned cork, put it onto their faces, and apply fire-truck red lipstick to their mouths. Mantan, Sleep'n Eat and the Alabama Porch Monkeys are then unveiled to the audience. People in the audience are shocked and dismayed, as the two actors employ self-deprecating racial humor while Mantan tap dances. White people in the audience are mostly scared to laugh or show their enjoyment, but black people around them clap and laugh. The white people thus feel sanctioned in enjoying the show. A sign near the stage says "Howl!" and the non-black people, seeing the approving black people around them, applaud.
To Delacroix's disbelief and displeasure, the CNS executives order 12 shows of "Mantan" for a mid-season replacement. As the show becomes more and more popular, sides are chosen in the resulting battle over representation, and finally, tempers fly, resulting in a tragic conclusion.