I must have missed the memo, but at some point blackface apparently became okay again. I thought we’d called a moratorium on it, but no, there’s Billy Crystal doing an impression of Sammy Davis, Jr. at the Academy Awards. Even more telling is a look at all the comments pouring in trying to excuse the bit. Whether you want to argue that Crystal was not actually wearing blackface because he was impersonating a real black person and not mocking an entire race of people, the fact remains that Crystal put makeup on his face to darken his skin to make him appear more like a black person. That’s pretty much the definition of blackface, folks. Regardless of whether it was done with the intention of making fun of black people, some things are just not okay. Some things should be off limits, and for a while it seemed like mainstream Hollywood, for all its faults, was at least willing to retire blackface.
But it’s back, with a vengeance. Even before Billy’s shtick at the Oscars, a disturbing trend was emerging in entertainment. I’ve seen two separate instances of blackface on 30 Rock in the past few years, and that’s just as a casual viewer. For all I know, they might’ve been doing that crap every other episode. Sadly, it wasn’t entirely surprising. The tension on that show between humor and outright racism has been brewing for years. Is it okay for Tracy Morgan to play a stereotypical lazy buffoon? What if his character could just as easily be white? What if the character points out and criticizes the racist expectations his co-workers have of him?
Is blackface okay if another character – a white character, of course – speaks up and says it’s not okay? How big of a stink does that character have to make? Is it still okay if blackface makes another appearance, one which none of the characters seem to mind? What if it’s for Halloween? What if it’s someone performing a sociological experiment? What if the blackface is a particularly well-done makeup job, rather than the “traditional” pitch-black foundation and ridiculously red lips? At what point does it become purposeful (and possibly acceptable), and when is it just plain racist?
Most of the time, however, the offensiveness of blackface is not ambiguous, no matter how “post-racial” its defenders want to claim society is. I enjoyed HBO’s mockumentary Summer Heights High, and was looking forward to creator Chris Lilley’s newest endeavor, Angry Boys. Then, about halfway through the first episode, I found myself literally saying, “What the hell?” One of the characters Lilley portrays is S.Mouse, an African-American rapper. Right away there’s a two-fold problem. One, rap culture is a bastion of stereotypes: vicious misogyny, rampant drug use, and the glorification of violence and low standards. The value or dangers of rap culture is widely debated even within the black community. Two, Lilley is a white dude from Australia.
From the first moment S.Mouse appears on screen, it’s a cringe-fest. Lilley disappears into most of the other characters he portrays. Not so with S.Mouse. (Nor with overbearing Japanese mother Jen Okazaki, but that’s a whole rant in itself.) Lilley can’t do a convincing American accent, let alone affect the dialect common to inner cities. (To be fair, one of the few bits of humor in the S.Mouse scenes is the fact that the wannabe rapper actually grew up wealthy.)
As if watching this weak character isn’t awkward enough, there’s the blackface. I’m not sure if it’s the crappy wig or the orangey makeup (or maybe it’s the fact that Lilley throws the N word around with abandon), but I literally could not watch the scenes featuring S.Mouse. I feel as though it should be obvious that the blackface in this show, as well as elsewhere, is utterly unacceptable”¦ but then, why is nearly everyone is accepting it? Maybe a refresher is in order? It’s not just “the man” turning a blind eye, either; the very targets of oppression have grown complacent, it seems. We’ve started letting our guard down, reasoning that sexist ads aren’t that big of a deal, in light of the War on Women going on in Washington. Maybe it’s hard to remember that those people waging the war are getting their offensive ideas from somewhere.
We’ve started agreeing that some kinds of blackface, the right kinds of blackface, are okay. The hard truth is that even “well-done” blackface, like Robert Downey, Jr. sported in Tropic Thunder, can be problematic. Yes, it was funny and it made a point, but I won’t pretend I was entirely comfortable watching it. And I have to ask myself if such “acceptable” instances of blackface make people feel that it’s okay to do it however and whenever they want.
I’m no fan of the slippery slope argument, but we’ve fought too hard to let the people in charge take back that proverbial inch. When it comes to entertainment, at least, I’m in favor of a “just say no” approach.