by Guest Contributor J Chang, originally published at INIT_Moving Pictures
I think I overestimated my capacity for brevity and so what was supposed to be a three part series will probably end up spreading out further as I try to unpack and look into the long relationship between race and cinema.
Last time, I established the tension that existed between the actual craft of the actor and the need for verisimilitude in mainstream entertainment cinema. Obviously, this interacts with race in that, while as actors, by craft, should be able to portray characters not their own race, the demands of needing what is seen to match consistently with the reality unfolding on the screen, the actor portraying the role should actually appear to be same race as the character.
While this might seem rather common sense, we find that, in the history of cinema, the actual representation of race in film doesn’t necessarily hold to the demands of cinematic verisimilitude. Ultimately, in film (and later, television history), there is actually a long history of casting of characters of color with white actors and ignoring, eliminating or marginalizing characters of color. The former is a rather extensive topic and so I’ll be focusing on that first.
One of the main mechanics by which (usually) white actors would perform characters of color is using makeup and prosthetics to approximate stereotypical racial characteristics, the most famous applications of which is called blackface. However, as the racial spectrum was rather wide and the ideas of whiteness morphed and changed over time, not only were black characters subject to this process, but characters of any ethnicity not considered white at the time were. Hence, due to the rather broad range of colors used to describe this technique, I’ll be calling it colorface here.
A Little Mixing
Early cinema was actually more of an amusement than actual entertainment, featuring little clips played in black boxes for people to watch. Moving pictures enabled people to see replications of real life, but it wouldn’t necessarily be so real, because a lot of it was set up. In that sense, reality television draws from one of the oldest traditions in cinema history. However, at some point, filmmakers became more ambitious and started recording stories with their movie cameras. These films started quite simply with basic stories like Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). However, as filmmakers realized the potential for storytelling in the nascent medium, like the theater before them, they also started looking into other sources for inspiration.
Obviously, being the closest analogue to cinematic presentation, much of what worked for the stage also found its way into the lexicon of filmmaking.
As cinema was birthed in the age of industry and quickly found its calling, the pursuit of the almighty dollar (or nickel, as it would be at the time), many of the places that it looked to for inspiration included what was popular at the time. Two things that were in wide existence in entertainment at the time were minstrel shows and vaudeville, which also often included minstrel shows. These shows are a form of theater and the former, and sometimes the latter, brought forth the use of blackface.
Being popular theatrical traditions, they also found their way into cinema, as vaudeville entertainers found their way onto the screen and enterprising filmmakers adapted the newest rages onto the screen.
All People Appear to Be White People
Still, it remains a logical wonder that white actors almost exclusively got cast as characters of color, if the part was of any considerable relevance. That is, if you consider logically casting without factoring the immense racism present in society. Just as this racism prevalent throughout society prevented people of color from owning land, getting work, marrying who they wanted, or… you know… living at all, it prevented actors of color from working in film. After all, making film costs a lot of money and most people of color didn’t have the means to make them. As (wealthy) white people controlled filmmaking, because they controlled capital, their racism, or at the very least, the overarching racism that they were beholden to, denied actors of color work in film.
But then who would play all those villainous colored people? Need I answer the question?
As white actors took up the work of portraying characters of color, many of them if not most of them probably had little actual meaningful interaction with people of color. Combine that with the prevailing notion that races were actually fundamentally different, these white actors would have to turn to safe places from which to draw their characters, Stanislavsky be damned. And that source would be, of course, minstrel shows and vaudeville, which had a history of portraying black characters, even if it was terribly racist–after all, the racism of yesteryear was actually the common sense of those that perpetuated it. (Although more than a thing or two could be said today about how a slightly more subtle racism still masquerades as common sense today.)
One of the significant problems of colorface at the time, beyond just keeping actors of color out of work, and being a tool of widespread proliferation of racism, was that, because of racism, it also impeded the actor’s craft. Due to the segregated society and the limited meaningful interaction of people between races, people of color were likely mysterious to the white actors, and believing what racism would be telling these actors, they consequently restrained themselves from actually performing anything more than a series of stereotypes. In that sense, people of color watching these films would immediately be able to point out that, “that black person is nothing like an actual black person!” (using the vernacular of the time, of course). Unfortunately, also because of this racism, I’m pretty certain that the vast majority of the audience (likely white), also would not be fazed by these ridiculous portrayals of people of color.
(As an aside, small pockets of cinematic resistance did exist in the US, as the Harlem Renaissance, as well as some resourceful black people, did end up providing a space for a few black films to be made. Also, in other countries, filmmaking did take root and there still are many surviving films featuring non-white people in all sorts of roles.)
The Undying Tradition
Although blackface suffered a tremendous loss in the social upheavals in the mid-1900’s and was significantly reduced, other forms of colorface continued, in addition to blackface to a lesser extent. And we have to look no further than the “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” debacle of just five minutes ago to see that colorface, even if naive, is still alive and well today.
But more obvious cases of colorface are still largely present, even if face paint isn’t a part of the picture. Take, for example, the casting of Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, a French journalist who clearly has some African lineage (amongst other genes), in the adaptation of her memoir, A Mighty Heart or the well mentioned The Last Airbender casting.
I think there are several factors feeding the continued acceptance of colorface. First, I think the audience’s ignorance is playing a big factor here. In some cases, the audience just doesn’t know that the characters are supposed to be characters of color, so when they see a white actor playing a character of color, they just assume that they character is white too. Second, producers often will choose bigger name actors to headline their film because it creates a greater chance at profits and well, there aren’t many A-list actors of color to choose from (which itself proves that societal racism is still very active today)–this also helps ease investors into joining a film. Third, I think that the notion of colorblind casting, from theater, has made its way into film, but in a rather selective form which disregards the abstraction of the theater and often, but not always, to the favor of white actors.
Finally, I think that, for the large part, the mainstream audience has largely bought the Mighty Whitey myth. Part of that also includes this concept that white equals neutral, as opposed to a distinct race, and can consequently fill any role. Which is why I think the public response to characters getting actors of the wrong race cast can often be so minimal. Well, that and the cynic in me screaming that the mainstream audience (as well as the majority of people) tend towards apathy when it comes to more “invisible” issues like systemic racism that don’t obviously impact their daily lives in a tangible way.
However, at least American society has largely come to realize that colorface is racist as we can see from the response to the Australian blackface sketch. Or at least selectively so when the old iconography resurfaces.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that racism hasn’t found a way to get around our consciences yet again. Although colorface is almost on life support, actors of color (and correlatively characters of color, discounting cases of colorface) are still largely underrepresented in mainstream film and television. It turns out that the way around colorface not being acceptable and still getting white actors is to just erase the color and change the characters to white.
Next time, I’ll go into erasing color and possibly also talk about cross-ethnic casting and representation of actors of color.
But, before I go, I do want to mention that colorface isn’t inherently racist. Just as an actor taking on the role of a character that doesn’t look like them isn’t inherently racist. Rather, the history of film, the history of colorface and the continued use of colorface as a tool to (even if not intentionally) limit opportunities for actors of color, are what attaches racism to colorface. Should true society-wide racial justice ever be achieved one day, we might possibly find it more acceptable, since it will be going equally in all directions.
However, colorface is just bad practice when it comes to non-abstract filmmaking and cinematic verisimilitude. And for that, I hope it dies a horrid unmerciful death.