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This Just In: Blackface Totally Okay Again

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.

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25 thoughts on “This Just In: Blackface Totally Okay Again”

  1. Not ok, Billy Crystal, not ok.

    30Rock is interesting because it attacks a lot of race, sex, and class delineations with jokes–and we’re not supposed to be comfortable with them.  We are supposed to squirm.  I worry about the people who laugh outright and don’t feel uncomfortable.  (This is, of course, the perennial problem with irony–not everyone gets it, and the danger is that it can actually reinforce the problems it seeks to reveal & critique.)

    Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled, should be required viewing for everyone watching TV and film. The film uses blackface–on black actors–who struggle with the history of it as they perform for a “live studio audience.”  The film is both over-the-top (it is dealing with media stereotypes after all) and heartbreaking.  I’ve taught this film to my classes a number of times; it makes my students realize the problems of portrayals of black Americans in our media– a long, long history of stereotyping in film & television comes down to us from the inception of the moving picture and is still with us today.

    Here’s a link to the montage of representations of blacks Spike Lee placed at the end of Bamboozled.  The reactions of my students are telling: their faces are curious or even blank with the first few images.  By a minute into the montage, most of them are crying.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C45g3YP7JOk

     

  2. There was a really good post about this on Racialicious (http://www.racialicious.com/2012/02/29/all-things-old-hollywood-blackface-at-the-oscars/), which I think also highlighted (although not explicitly in these words) an important part of the issue: it is not about white people.  It does not matter of a whole lot of white people watch the Oscars and think that it was okay.  It’s about something that has a long and racist history and is a tool of oppression, and it is about how that makes the people being oppressed feel.  I can’t get over the fact that every single person I have heard defend this has been white.  I really don’t get how any white person can think it is their place to decide if blackface is acceptable.

    Also, I do think it’s a bigger deal that this was at the Oscars, which is one of the most public and widely watched TV broadcasts of the year.  That reached a HUGE audience, and is definitely sending the wrong message.

  3. I’m going to double down on what DrMrsJamesCole said and outright defend 30Rock.  It is made clear within the context of that episode (Christmas Attack Zone, I think) that nobody but Jenna and Paul think that the blackface costume is a good idea.  Jenna has been painted for years as a socially tone-deaf, self-involved ignoramus who gives zero consideration to the feelings of anybody but herself.

    If you doubt this, consider the other episode when Jenna does blackface – when she and Tracy argue about which group is more marginalized and switch race/gender places – and Liz says point blank that it is not OK for Jenna to be in blackface.

    The use of blackface in both of these still makes me cringe, but I think it is supposed to.  The writers aren’t suggesting that its OK, or even marginally acceptable. They are painting a very specific portrait of Jenna Maroney as a character who is NOT OK.

    1. I haven’t watched 30 Rock, but I think this is a fair point. I think one of the problems with doing this, though, is that sometimes it is a very fine line between doing something racist/sexist/etc. as a commentary and doing it in a way that plays into the offensive constructs themselves.

      As I haven’t seen these, I can’t really make my own judgments on it aside from what I’ve heard, but I am concerned that it could very easily fall into the offensive side more than the commentary.

      This is one of my typical concerns with Stephen Colbert. Usually, I love The Colbert Report, but there are people who watch it and think that he believes what he says, and then they use it has justification for their own shitty ideas.

      Should this be something we readily consider in regard to camp? I’m not sure. I think it is something to think about, though.

      1. Yeah, I have that concern about irony and satire, too. I thought of it a lot with Baron Cohen’s Borat character. It’s tricky as hell.

        This is going to sound a little weird, but I always suspect that on the subconscious level, images and stories may get stored in the brain without the satirical context…like it’s a DVD with a little sticker that says “irony,” but the little sticker falls off.

        1. I think you might be right, especially with regards to the satire and jokes that are poking at stereotypes; since the stereotypes are already there, even though we know they’re jokes, sometimes they can reinforce them.

          Now, does this always happen with irony/satire? And in what way do they bolster stereotypes? Which stereotypes are bolstered? I’m not sure what the answer to that is; it probably depends on the situation.

          And I’m with you about Borat. Borat was just gross to me.

    2. It is totally in character for Jenna to want to do blackface. However, I think that it was a case of the show having it both ways. The writers emphasized that blackface is horrible, but at the same time, they got to mine the cheap laughs that come from having a character do something so unbelievably awful. In other words, they used blackface to get a laugh, and they put an image on the air that many people find offensive to do it.

       

      1. That’s one of my problems with the very thin line 30 Rock sometimes treads. i know we’re meant to laugh at how wrong it is, but does everyone? (Which, I think, was one of the reasons Dave Chappelle walked away from his show.) My other problem is the source of the humor. I always picture Tina Fey or some other white writer going, “You know what would be SO funny?”

  4. On the Billy Crystal thing, I’ve heard a lot of back and forth on it, and while I can see ‘his’ side to a point (he knew the person he was portraying, he did that impression of SDJ when he was alive with his blessing, and it wasn’t a generic person but a specific one), why even risk it? Just, why go there?

    I do disagree a bit about calling Tracy Jordan a stereotypical lazy baboon, though. From all accounts, he’s very atypical and allegedly is very much like the character in real life. And the Jenna character is portrayed as someone who is offensive and oblivious and therefore it made sense that her character would do something as horrific as the Lynn Swan “Black Swan’ costume. I do think it was done in a way that suggested it was supposed to be horrible and racist and tone-deaf, but I still think that it’s ‘funny’ enough for some people to not get what is so wrong with it, which is problematic. (I say ‘funny’ in quotes because Lynn Swan did do ballet and there is a joke in there, but it didn’t need to be a white person doing it).

    1. Personally, the thing about Crystal’s impression that reaaaally bothers me is, why did he have to darken his skin to do the impression? I don’t see why that’s necessary to do an impression of someone who happens to have darker skin than you.

      1. I agree. And I think it’s a pathetic excuse to say ‘well, but that’s how he used to do it so it’s how he does it!’ Ugh, no. IIRC, he did his Fernando “Maaaahvelous’ Lamas impression just fine without darkening his skin.

  5. The thing that boggles my mind about the choice to use blackface, aside from the blatant disregard for not only its racist history and its racist problems, is if you want a character to look black, why not just hire a black actor?

    Do you ever really NEED to use blackface? I don’t think you do. Give a black actor that damn job, don’t paint someone to look black. And if the portrayal itself is so blatantly racist that it “justifies” the use of blackface, you shouldn’t make that portrayal in the first place.

    It’s not “ironic.” It’s not “funny.” It’s just offensive. Plain and simple.

     

    1. I should clarify: I don’t think it’s ever, EVER okay to use blackface or anything of the sort (as an alternative to hiring a black actor) on a white actor playing a black character. I mean, what year are we in? Not only is it offensive, it’s almost quaint, like when you see some white dude you’re supposed to believe is a Native American in an old Western.

  6. So not ok. I don’t understand the resurgence. Is this some sort of faux post-racial bullshit? The Facebook threads I saw on the whole Billy Crystal thing tell me it is. I wish I could say that the number of comments I saw defending not only that, but modern blackface in general surprised me, but I can’t. People appear to have even moved past coming up with reasons to justify, preferring instead to just go “NO IT ISNT!!! IM NOT RACIST. UR BEING RACIST AGAINST MY FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION CUZ IM WHITE!!”

    Disclaimer: These are not my Facebook friends. They are friends of friends whose commented-on stuff pops up in my feed.

    1. Ugh. If I hear one more person say that again. It’s so totally not okay, I cringe every time I see blackface. Post racial my ass. The whole tea party movement and the way some right wingers are treating our president shows just how much work needs to be done. America as a country seems to take one giant step forward and then twenty back.

      1. I’ll admit it: when I hear “post-racial,” I expect some kind of bullshit to immediately follow it. I think a lot of the hysterical anger we’re seeing (of which I believe blackface is a part) from the privileged in this country is because we have a black president.

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