All Things Old Hollywood: Blackface At The Oscars

Courtesy Franchesca Ramsey and Jezebel.com

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.

Courtesy Barnard College

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.

  • Mickey

    If Billy Crystal doing blackface wasn’t enough, chekc this out:

    http://now.msn.com/entertainment/0302-korean-pop-blackface.aspx

  • kim

    WTF. I didn’t even know this happened. I did not watch the Oscars. (And I am now glad I didn’t.) But I did not see this reported on anywhere else, which is really telling.

  • Lauren

    It’s this and the n word that it seems that some white people really want to do.  I don’t know why.  But it just seems like an itch.  I don’t think it’s funny to be black.  I don’t want to be seen ask a joke.  If you want to make fun of black people, you don’t need blackface.  SNL did a skit as Beyonce, to which I laughed so hard to, does she look like Beyonce?  No.  So you don’t have to look like whomever you’re making fun of to get the point across. 

    Black people aren’t cartoon characters.

    • Anonymous

      Right, but I’m assuming you are talking about Maya Rudolph, who is a black woman (or woman of African ancestry) who was pretending to be another black woman (Beyonce).  

      So true, blackface isn’t necessary and it is so offensive, far too offensive to be used in any context, but this isn’t a great comparison.  Sami Davis Jr. had a pretty distinctive way of talking, so he’s a great person to imitate if you can do voices.  They either needed to leave him out of that skit or have him played by a black man.  

      SNL comics pretend to be other people all of the time, and clearly if looking like your target mattered they wouldn’t be having a black man play Oprah (which is a discussion for another time, but one I’d like to see tackled, since I can only think of one time that a real white woman was played by a white comic on SNL).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MQEC5FUPX6GT5FFCFG3RK3LUOI Rebecca

    I guess it supposed to be funny…who is laughing?

  • http://twitter.com/futuretalkdotco futuretalk.co

    Thank you for writing this. I made a video (
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8_BmeIPohs) addressing this, and, in between a few really nice positive comments, got almost nothing but “you’re over-analyzing” and “you’re taking it too seriously” and “you’re ignoring his intentions.” My word, what a luxury it is to think that critical analysis of race in America is “taking things too seriously.” Who lives like that? Well, most of America, I guess.

  • Anonymous

    To take the devils advocate position further, the present day blackface that the Tyler Perry and VH-1 empires is troweling out is being enthusiastically supported by black people.  Non-stereotypical black entertainment doesn’t have nearly that kind of traction.  So people shouldn’t be surprised by this at all.

    This reminds me of the scene in Bamboozled where the whites in the audience are horrified by Delacroix’s minstrel show. Then the black people started clapping.     

    • Keith

      Tyler Perry and VH-1 do blackface? What on earth are you are you talking about? Are you talking  about basketball wives or whatever the name of those reality shows are? What demographic data are you backing your claims on? I am really offended by your statement because you ignore all the reality shows featuring ignorant white people.

  • PatrickInBeijing

    Disgusting.  Every time, it is the same thing, “oh, we didn’t know this is offensive.”  Bullsh******t.  How can anyone not know this?  It’s not just Billy Crystal (though forget him), it’s the producers and everyone associated with the production of the Oscars.  No one noticed this was a bad idea?  All the rehearsals, no one spoke up?  Want to know how segregated and racist Hollywood is?  Watch the f**king Oscars.  I am so angry, I am spitting.  Incredible.  Incredible.  No excuses accepted.  A whole buncha careers should be ending.

  • Ike

    I don’t expect much from Jezebel anymore. It’s just white women flexing their white privilege and shutting out other perspectives.

  • K.

    Chris Rock’s commentary that night was hilarious and completely right. And I feel like I haven’t seen anyone really complain about the racial jokes and blackface made by Crystal. It just astounding. *facepalm*

  • Anonymous

     how would they feel if a black comedian donned whiteface in order to mock a dead white celebrity?

    I’m always wary of that kind of reversal. The history just isn’t the same. A lot of white people wouldn’t care, because we have no reason to be sensitive about whiteface. It’s just not comparable to blackface.

    (Although I do wonder if Chris Rock’s joke about how a black actor can’t voice a white character was an attempt to respond to Crystal’s blackface — I didn’t watch the Oscar telecast, but my impression was it came later? It’s certainly ironic that a white guy can get up there and don blackface to portray Sammy Davis Jr., but a black actor can’t play a white character in a *cartoon*.)

    • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

      True maybe most of them wouldn’t care, but then I also think it depends on the celebrity/famous figure being mocked. Maybe Elvis being mocked wouldn’t cause a stir (because he’s already mocked by whites) but someone more well-respected, like a dead president, might raise eyebrows. Also what you say about Chris Rock’s joke has me thinking maybe that’s how POC comedians could turn the tables, just jokingly make astute social commentaries in order to make the audience not feel that comfortable.

    • K.

      I’m always wary of that kind of reversal. The history just isn’t the same. A lot of white people wouldn’t care, because we have no reason to be sensitive about whiteface. It’s just not comparable to blackface.
      Yeah I agree. That’s actually an excuse I hear all the time: “Blackface isn’t bad! Hey if a black person wanted to do white face I wouldn’t be offended so why should they? RELAX.”
      White people were never and aren’t a oppressed race so of course it doesn’t bother us. La siigh.

      Although I do wonder if Chris Rock’s joke about how a black actor can’t voice a white character was an attempt to respond to Crystal’s blackface

      In retrospect I definitely see what you mean. That comment almost seemed offhand too, like it wasn’t scripted. His commentary was so good. I’m surprised he’s getting any grief over them. He speaks the truth tbqh. 

  • jvansteppes

    Yes Billy Crystal, I bet black women just LOVE getting randomly hugged by annoying white people who’ve just seen ’The Help’. 

  • Helena

    Kendra, you are ALWAYS ON POINT. Thanks for this insightful commentary.

  • Helena

    Kendra, you are ALWAYS ON POINT. Thanks for this insightful commentary.

  • JJ

    The blackface moment was shocking to me, and even more offensive when you consider that Sammy Davis Jr. was born in 1925 and thus is totally out of place in a Midnight in Paris spoof — which means that the entirety of the “joke” is that Crystal in blackface is HILARIOUS, apropos of nothing.

    Given all of the problems with this year’s show, I agree that the joke about The Help was awkward and out-of-place, but in general I take his point — here’s this audience sitting here just *basking* in how great it is that they made a movie about the bad old days of segregation when they live and work in one of the whitest places in the country.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    It was a shocking moment to me as well. I was like what year is this? Sometimes it seems if (some) White people are testing Black people to see what they can still get away with. They already had a Black woman nominated for playing a mammy (in 2012) and then blackface too? WTF. But worse is that the mainstream media has been totally silent on this. And that includes ones that have Black faces working (pun intended) at them. So as I said on another post it doesn’t seem to matter if Black people are working at mainstream outlets since most seem to adopt the view of their White counterparts on matters of race.

  • http://transitionsandtransgressions.wordpress.com Xeginy

    Thank you for making the comparison between Billy Crystal’s stunt and MIA. All she did was give the camera the finger…but he was in fucking blackface. That is some seriously skewed priorities.