By Guest Contributor Kendra James
Another Monday, another post-awards show morning, another day of waking up and asking myself if I really just saw what I thought I saw. Because there’s absolutely no way that I really saw Billy Crystal in blackface on national television the night before.
And for all I know, maybe I didn’t. No one’s talking about it. It didn’t seem to have made any morning news show headlines. I didn’t hear Kelly Ripa and Neil Patrick Harris mention it and I missed seeing what the women of The View had to say, but given Whoopi’s track record with the hot topics of the day I’m guessing I wouldn’t have been impressed.
Oh, but wait, a quick dive into the comments section at Jezebel (why do I do this to myself?) confirms that I did not, in fact, dream up what I saw last night. Not only did it happen, but it seems to have already been rationalised by the general public. You see, blackface is apparently no longer offensive, especially if it’s not being done to intentionally hurt anyone’s feelings. We’re in post-racial America! These things no longer carry the weight they once did. There’s no need to analyse it to death. It was just a sketch!
Foolishness like this is making it really hard for me to get my fill of pretty red-carpet dresses.
It took me a moment to even realise that Crystal was in blackface during the sketch, partially because I wasn’t aware of his history with the Sammy Davis Jr impression and because for some reason, I really always am in genuine disbelief when producers approve this stuff. For someone viewing his ‘impression’ with fresh eyes, it was jarring at best.
Here’s a night where two women of color are nominated for major awards, the audience is actually looking fairly diverse (I don’t know why Diddy was there, but I’m not mad at him), and you have at least two Black men in attendance who can probably still vaguely remember a time when blackface on film was a fairly common occurrence (Morgan Freeman was born in 1937 while James Earl Jones was born in 1931; movies like Babes on Broadway, featuring Judy Garland in blackface, were still coming out in 1941. Aural blackface favorite Amos ‘n Andy was on the radio into the 1950s).
Once I realised that Crystal had gone there, I figured an apology would be quick in coming. The perfect opportunity seemed to present itself after Octavia Spencer left the stage upon winning her best supporting actress award for The Help. “That moment for Octavia is what the Oscars is all about, and I’m looking out into the audience now,” he could have said. “and I realise that given the audience and the importance of the night, blackface for humour’s sake was an inappropriate way to go. My sincere apologies.”
And what did we get instead?
That moment for Octavia is what the Oscars is all about. I love that movie a lot … When I came out of “The Help” I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive.
That seemed to be par for the course considering the rest of the evening, unfortunately. Each joke made at Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis’ behalf was racially tinged. Between the blackface and the roles the two women were nominated for (which, having not seen the film, I don’t begrudge them for at all) it could have very well been the 1939 Oscars all over again (see: nominations of Gone With The Wind and Babes in Arms).
When or if Crystal does release a statement concerning his actions I’m guessing the word ‘tribute’ will be used. Perhaps the term ‘subversive’, which tends to be a favorite of those defending Fred Astaire’s one blackface performance in 1936’s Swing Time. Astaire’s imitation of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson is often given a pass because it was meant as an homage to the man he considered a colleague in dance, and because it was an imitation of a specific person, not the race as a whole. It wasn’t meant to be offensive, the theory goes–which of course means the viewer should just ignore the history behind blacking up and enjoy the dancing.
Crystal’s defenders seem to be expressing the same views, some even going as far as to point out that because he didn’t do it in the traditionally correct way (burnt cork mixed with water to make the blackface paste, coupled with a deliberate emphasising of Black features like the lips and eyes) it shouldn’t be put in the same class as “real” blackface.
Blacking up is blacking up, though, whether or not you do it ‘right’. And call me crazy, but it should never be funny. Remember the feeling you got the first time you saw Bugs Bunny in blackface for the first time during your Saturday morning cartoons Or maybe you accidentally saw Swing Time or an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie without anyone there to explain it to you.
When you see a film like Bamboozled, Spike Lee has purposely laid the groundwork for you to have a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, but when it comes to casual occurrences as with Bugs Bunny, Judy Garland, and Billy Crystal you start having to defend your feelings of offence and discomfort others. Done ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, blacking up evokes a sense of nostalgia that is anything but fond and comforting.
Crystal’s lips weren’t pinked and he wasn’t walking around wide eyed, but I know my history and when I see blackface I’m immediately reminded of its former uses. There was a time when black actors and actresses couldn’t appear on stage or screen before applying blackface to become caricatures of themselves. White actors would black up to make black men seem terrifying when they portrayed them as rapists and murders, as in The Birth of a Nation. Blackface was used to hide our beauty (Josephine Baker did not look like that), draw out fear, or induce mocking laughter. It was used by whites to make us look foolish or–maybe worse–to force us to do it ourselves. You’re allowed in “our” [entertainment] world, it says, but you’re going to do it on our terms.
“Nothing was meant by it,” viewers from last night might say; or in the case of Crystal and Sammy Davis Jr, “It’s just one Jewish man imitating another Jewish man.” (So would they be alright replacing Billy Crystal with Al Jolson then?) It seems if racism isn’t accompanied by white hoods and burning crosses, it’s not racism. You’re overreacting and taking offense to something that hasn’t meant anything for years. Blackface on national television? Yes, fine. A brown woman gives middle finger at the Superbowl a month earlier? Dear God in heaven, the horror. No one appears to be forcing Crystal to give the apology MIA was pushed into.
I haven’t over-analyzed anything (“over-analyzed” being the favorite term of some of my white friends) if my immediate gut reaction is revulsion and discomfort. That doesn’t come after hours of reading or thinking on the topic, but rather the innate knowledge that this is wrong and no one is going to do a thing about it. It’s literally getting to the point where, as a black person, I can’t enjoy the things I love without being consistently confronted with racist imagery.
Granted, none of this is particularly new of late. As a culture we seem to be becoming more and more accepting of racist imagery and questionable revisionist history surrounding Black/White relations in our popular media. The same people insisting that what Billy Crystal did is fine and inoffensive are the same people who can never seem to understand why names like Lady Antebellum make some of us cringe, why the term “Dixie” reminds me more of minstrelsy than a trio of country singing women, or why we spend so much time side-eying shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and 2 Broke Girls. Post-Racial America is eager to forget the events and history that led to terms like ‘post-racial’ to begin with, and if we’re capable of forgetting and minimalising the impact of something so influential as blackface, then it’s no wonder the rest isn’t touched with so much as a ten-foot pole.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We all know blackface is offensive. I’m sure the show’s producers know blackface is offensive. The response should be simple: Just don’t do it. Every celebrity and their cousin was on the night’s broadcast. How hard would it have been to ask Chris Rock or almost-host Eddie Murphy for a Sammy Davis Jr. impression? I’m sure Jay Pharoah, SNL’s master impressionist, was available. The opening monologue wouldn’t have been any funnier, but they could have avoided blackface which–silly me–was thing I just assumed people would want to do to begin with.
I guess none of us should be surprised that out of everything there was to unpack from Sunday night’s broadcast, the New York Times took issue not with the blackface or the racial jokes aimed towards Spencer and Davis, or even Sasha Baron Cohen’s red carpet stunts, but with Chris Rock’s commentary on race, voice acting, and animation:
Chris Rock followed with a racial joke, about black men getting lousy roles even in animated films. It may have been in questionable taste, but it jarred the show closer to modern times.
I envy the world that they, and apparently most other news outlets, live in where Chris Rock was the most offensive moment of the night. Watching The Oscars While White must be a hell of a thing.