Tag Archives: blackface

Casting & Race Part 2: Defacing Color

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.

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Robert Downey Jr. wears blackface to mock white actors who wear blackface?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Fatemeh and reader Nae tipped us off to this upcoming Ben Stiller comedy, in which Robert Downey Jr. appears in blackface.

But wait – his character is a white actor who dons blackface to play a role that was originally written for a black man. So… is this a way of skewering the Angelina Jolie’s of the world?

Here’s a piece from Entertainment Weekly:

If you don’t recognize that African-American actor standing between Jack Black and Ben Stiller, there’s a good reason: He’s white. In Tropic Thunder, an epic action comedy co-written and directed by Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a very serious Oscar-winning actor cast in the most expensive Vietnam War film ever. Problem is, Lazarus’s character, Sgt. Osiris, was originally written as black. So Lazarus decides to dye his skin and play Osiris, um, authentically. Funny? Sure. Dangerous? That’s an understatement. ”If it’s done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago,” Downey says. ”If you don’t do it right, we’re going to hell.”

…For starters, Hollywood satires have a rocky box office record. And then there’s that little issue of a white guy playing a black guy. Stiller says that he and Downey always stayed focused on the fact that they were skewering insufferable actors, not African-Americans. ”I was trying to push it as far as you can within reality,” Stiller explains. ”I had no idea how people would respond to it.” He recently screened a rough cut of the film and it scored high with African-Americans. He was relieved at the reaction. ”It seems people really embrace it,” he says.

Paramount is hoping so: The studio plans to debut the trailer online March 17, and Downey is all over it. (In one scene, he tries to bond with a real African-American castmate by quoting the theme song from The Jeffersons.) Downey, meanwhile, is confident he never crossed the line. ”At the end of the day, it’s always about how well you commit to the character,” he says. ”I dove in with both feet. If I didn’t feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I’m just C. Thomas Howell in [Soul Man], I would’ve stayed home.”

Huh. Funny that Downey would invoke Peter Sellers.

Okay, the idea of mocking white actors who put on blackface in this day and age seems like a good one, if this whole movie is satirizing Hollywood. But dude, it’s a Ben Stiller movie. As much as I enjoy catching cable reruns of Zoolander (“one look??”), I can’t see this movie doing anything but bungling the race issue.

What do you all think?

Angelina Jolie nominated for a NAACP Image Award

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Today’s WTF moment for you. (Thanks Dorothy!) From Yahoo! News:

“The Great Debaters,” a film based on the real-life victories of a black debating team in the 1930s, topped the list of nominees announced Tuesday for the 39th NAACP Image Awards…

Nominated for outstanding actress: Jurnee Smollett for “The Great Debaters,” Angelina Jolie for “A Mighty Heart,” Halle Berry for “Things We Lost In the Fire,” Jill Scott for “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?” and Taraji P. Henson for “Talk To Me.”

Sarah Silverman does blackface

by guest contributor The Thin Black Duke, originally published at Slant Truth 2.0

I’m not a fan of Sarah Silverman. I find her humor juvenile and often offensive. She will stoop to the lowest level possible to try and get a laugh. Yet I was still shocked to learn that a recent episode of her show, titled “Face Wars,” went so low as to contain (oh yeah…you guessed it…the hip trend of last year hasn’t gone away yet) Silverman in blackface. Take a look:

Yep, she went there.

Now, I’m a big fan of comedy, especially subversive comedy, and so I understand that many comedians exploit stereotypes to get their point accross. Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Sacha Baron Cohen, among many others have all to varying degrees of success exploited racial/ethnic/religious stereotypes to get a point across. The difference, for me, is that they all exploited racial/ethnic/religious stereotypes in order to expose the ignorance of those stereotypes. In Silverman’s episode, it seems to me that she is revelling in stereotypes and trying to be as offensive as she possibly can. When I saw the bit where a black man is wearing a big nose and a t-shirt that reads “I love money” (the black man and Silverman attempt to switch places so that Silverman can prove that Jews have it worse than blacks, as if that’s a question worth asking) I almost threw my computer monitor out the window.1 Really? Did she need to go there? If you haven’t seen the episode you probably don’t get where I’m going here, but in the context of the show it is nothing but offensive to me and serves no purpose other than to perpetuate the faux black/Jewish divide.

What really gets my goat about this episode is that it’s all played off as “starting a dialogue about race.” Um no. All I see is the worst stereotypes about black folks and Jewish folks being perpetuated with little to no actual commentary on why these stereotypes are messed up in the first place. It’s all shock. No commentary. And when it has all ended, she has painted herself as the most “open-minded.” To wit, this little supposedly funny bit from the show:

“What do we want?”

“The freedom to explore issues of race in American culture through the use of post-modern dramatic irony.”

“When do we want it?”

“We think it’s fairly obvious.”

That could be funny in a lot of comedic situations, but here, I find it all too telling.

A Mighty Heart: Revealed

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson

A Mighty Heart has gotten a lot of play on this blog (see here and here).

We’ve debated everything from the motives in selecting the lead actress to Marianne Pearl’s experiences to neo-blackface.

Personally, I’ve been keeping an eye out for an answer. In last month’s Glamour (or it could have been the month before – I only read Glamour every so often), Marianne Pearl discussed her experience and indicated that she sought out Angelina Jolie. She initially sought her out in friendship, and later asked for her to take on the role.

This month, I’m paging through Esquire and start reading Tom Junod’s extremely thorough and researched interview on Angelina Jolie. On page 85, Junod shone some light on the making of the film:

A year later, Mariane Pearl published a memoir of her marriage to Danny and the terrible circumstances of his death. Called A Mighty Heart, it was not a bitter book nor a book of broken faith. It was, indeed, a book that put forth the notion that Danny and Mariane Pearl did not lose to unimaginable evil but rather triumphed over it by living as citizens of the world to the very end. Brad Pitt bought it while it was still in manuscript and started to develop it as a vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Aniston; and when Brad left Jennifer for Angelina after the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith,it was Mariane Pearl who suggested Angelina Jolie for the role of Mariane Pearl, for, as it turned out, Angelina Jolie and Mariane Pearl were not just kindred spirits. They rather startlingly drew the same meaning from their different experiences after 9/11. They rather startlingly both believed that the story of Daniel Pearl’s death was about good people coming together to fight evil rather than evil guys coming together to destroy good. They rather inevitably became close. “I read the book,” Angelina says, “and Mariane and I got on really well as women, and we’ve since become really great friends, and our kids have become friends.” And in A Mighty Heart, they joined forces on a movie that, far from bemoaning the fact that some people are worse than others, celebrates the fact that some people are just better.

A couple notes:

1. That was copied straight from the magazine, long sentences and one block paragraph intact.

2. In the Glamour article, Mariane Pearl indicates that she initiated the friendship with Angelina. They became friends first, and then things moved forward on the movie.

So, after reading this account, what do you think?

Personally, I’m kind of shocked that the movie was going to be a Jennifer Aniston vehicle. I think that blows my mind. What were they going to do with her to transform her into Mariane Pearl?

On a gossipy note, that kind of blows for Jennifer Aniston – Angelina got her man AND her film!

I also wonder how Mariane Pearl self-identifies. I find it interesting that no one of color was tapped to play her – even though this would have been a no-brainer choice based on looks for Halle Berry or Thandie Newton or maybe a new undiscovered actress. I am not sure how much control Pearl had over the process initially, but she did recommend Angelina for the role. Did she just want someone she knew and trusted to portray her correctly? Or is there something more behind this?

What do you think? Regular readers, does this change your opinions expressed in the comments on the previous threads?

Riverdale Christian Academy celebrates graduation with a blackface party mocking slavery

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Wow. Now it’s not only college students playing with blackface, faculty and staff members are getting in on the act too. This Fresno, CA Christian school even played a game of “catch the runaway slave!” From Fresnobee.com:

Members of Fresno’s black community said they were stunned this week to see pictures of adults in blackface poking fun at slavery during a recent graduation celebration for Riverdale Christian Academy.

The photos, which were posted on the Internet shortly after the June 1 event, show staff and faculty of the small private Christian school dressed as slaves with captions describing activities at the party in Hanford.

“The slaves served lemonade — it was a riot,” read one caption beneath a photo of five women and a man at a lemonade stand. Each had dark face makeup and wore 19th century clothing.

“Someday we gonna be leavin’ when a workin’ day is done,” read another caption posted with a photo of three women holding gardening tools.

A third picture showed a white man in a Yankees jersey and top hat escorting another in blackface with the caption, “bringing home the runaway slave in the Senior skit.”

By now you know the drill with these blackface parties.

Step 1: Declare that you did not mean to offend anyone.

Step 2: Point to the fact that black people were at the party too, so obviously it wasn’t that racist!

Nice to see that Doug Spencer, the school’s principal, has been taking notes:

Spencer, who said he was sorry for the controversy, said his school, with a student body of 150, has “three or four” black students. One of those students attended the party. Spencer said that while he is willing to apologize to anyone offended by the skits, he has not apologized to the unnamed student.

“It was not offensive,” Spencer said. “And she hasn’t asked for an apology.”

Hat tip to Tate Hill at Urban Knowledge and Resist Racism