Saturday, December 25, 2010

Blackface: Racism or Pop Culture?

Entertainer Al Jolson in blackface.
A blackface television performance by two white actors from 1950.

Spike Lee’s scathing satire of the television industry, Bamboozled (2000), writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times film review, “accuses African-American writers and performers…of creating work that demeans blacks through caricatures that are not far removed from ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’”

A poster from Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled.
Lee’s film Bamboozled focuses upon a song-and-dance minstrel show on TV--starring black performers in blackface--that becomes an award-winning smash hit that “fosters a national craze for wearing blackface.” The two stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show are “Manray” (Savion Glover) and “Sleep ’n’ Eat” (Tommy Davidson), who are supported by the song-and-dance ensemble the Pickanninys, who include “reincarnations” of Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Rastus and Jungle Bunny. The “jolly” minstrel band on the show is called the Alabama Porch Monkeys.
Entertainer Billy Van (left) and Van in blackface.
The New York Times writes that the concept behind “this dangerous free-for-all satire on race, television and black images in the media is demonically inspired and uncomfortably to the point.” Holden points to “one of the movie’s funniest and most disturbing scenes,” when audience members of Mantan--all of whom are wearing blackface--stand up from their seat to explain excitedly why they are “niggers.”
Highlights from Spike Lee's blackface satire, Bamboozled (2000).

A real life Mantan:The Black and White Minstrel Show in England

Bamboozled had a real-life counterpart in a British musical variety show--The Black and White Minstrel Show--that debuted on BBC television on June 14, 1958. It won the 1961 Golden Rose of Montreux award. The audience for the weekly show was between 16 and 18 million viewers. Robert Luff’s stage production of it opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1969 and was documented by The Guinness Book of Records as the stage show seen by the greatest number of people.

Here's an excerpt from The Black and White Minstrel Show.

“coy white women…wooed by docile, smiling black slaves”

It was a popular show because viewers enjoyed the “meticulously choreographed dance routines and popular songs and melodies.” The combination of white dancers with black-faced singers was “believed to be visually striking,” especially when color TV debuted on the BBC in 1967. The big problem with the show was when “coy white women could be seen being wooed by docile, smiling black slaves.” The “slaves” were in reality white performers that were “blacked-up.”

Actor Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface (left) in the film Tropic Thunder and Downey out of make-up.
Minstrel Show presenting blacks as “stupid and credulous” sparks controversy
As Britain became more diverse and multi-cultural, the earlier ignored issues surrounding the show became topics of discussion. Since there were very few other representations of black people on British TV, having black characters on such a popular and widely-watched program “depicting them as being both stupid and credulous” sparked controversy.

The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination presented a petition to the BBC signed by black and white people requesting that The Black and White Minstrel Show be removed from the air. Despite the controversy, the BBC kept the show on the air until July 1, 1978, when the waning popularity of the television variety show prompted its cancellation.
Here's the 'infamous' Jackson 5 tribute from Australian TV.  Must blackface always be considered "racism" or can it also be an emulation of black culture that is positive and is a celebration?

Blackface becomes popular around the world--but is only “racist” in US

Louis Chude-Sokei writes that “we are at the cusp of a new era of classic, no-holds barred, in-your-face minstrelsy.” Blackface is being turned upside down by those who, writes Chude-Sokei, “suggest that blackface is the ultimate statement of anti-racism in that it emerges from a desire to criticize and mock racism itself.” There was a “notorious” blackface Jackson Five impersonation broadcast on Australian TV ; “the skit went viral just as blackface did the moment it appeared in nineteenth century America.” So is blackface racism--or does it stem from a fascination with black American culture and is it thus an attempt to emulate it?
Americans are the most offended by blackface in the world.  Other cultures have elements of blackface.  Must Americans dictate to the world what is "racist" and what isn't?
Singer Beyonce in blackface from a photo shoot for a French magazine.

Chude-Sokei writes about the growing popularity of blackface: “though it may be heresy to say, it is also a full-throttled attack on racial sanctimony and on the toxic notion that any one group has the last word on what is or isn’t offensive.” It’s the globalization and emergence outside the “control of American racial sensitivity”--places such as France, Australia, Turkey, Mexico, Japan, West Africa--that is marking the return of “classic” blackface.
Mexican postage stamps from 2005.

Mexicans cite American "cultural insensitivity"

An example is when in 2005 Mexico was asked to withdraw a blackface postage stamp based on a “beloved cartoon character” that Memin Penguin created in 1943. The protests came from then president Bush, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and a wide array of activist groups. In response, Mexicans and Mexican immigrants singled out the “cultural insensitivity” of Americans, who were “too quick to judge” without knowing anything of Mexico’s “motives, racial histories or profound affection for the character.”

Actor and entertainer Mantan Moreland. 

Attitude about blackface ends career of Mantan Moreland and other black performers

It was during the 1960s when blackface and minstrelsy was seen as “exclusively negative” and many black performers saw their careers end, such as Mantan Moreland--the namesake of Spike Lee’s Mantan: The The New Millennium Minstrel Show. He was offered fewer and fewer roles beginning in the 1950s when filmmakers began to reassess roles given to black actors. In the 1960s and 1970s, he got un-credited bit parts and extra roles in films and TV shows.

Seeing blackface minstrelsy as solely racist and always an assault on blacks is troubling and inflexible. Chude-Sokei writes that an audience “being offended” has become an expression of cultural and political power. Thus blackface is offensive--and anyone who differs from that is branded “racist” and all discussion ends on that note.
Entertainer Bert Williams was a black blackface performer.
Black-American show business has roots in black blackface artists

“The saddest fact of this blind hostility to blackface is that it ignores the fact that African-American show business has its roots in black blackface performers,” writes Chude-Sokei. “It is conveniently forgotten that this racist minstrel music made a black recording industry possible…It also was at the root of American pop, from Stephen Foster to Al Jolson to Bing Crosby to Shirley Temple.” He writes that without Bert Williams, there would be no Jay Z., without Steppin Fetchit, no Tyler Perry, and without Hattie McDaniel, no Oprah.

“Those who respond with such absolutism to blackface,” writes Chude-Sokei, “are desperate to control the terms of racial conversation, here and abroad. This very American tendency, whether manifest in whites or blacks, says far more about what we have become than what we ever were.”


Holden, Stephen. "Bamboozled (2000). Film Review; Trying On Blackface in a Flirtation With Fire.” The New York Times, October 6, 2000.

“The Black and White Minstrel Show.”

Chude-Sokei, Louis. “The New Era of Blackface.” Fanzine. 12.17.09.

Copyright (C) Eric Brothers 2011.  All Rights Reserved.

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