Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lighten Up Blackface

Duane Jones - Ben
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Tolerance is a relative word. It is relative to the person or the situation and the varying degrees in between. Some people could find the sound of nails being dragged down a chalkboard completely intolerable, while others remain unaffected. The subject of race and representation, particularly in film, is an area where people express varying degrees of tolerance. On one hand it can be empowering and on the other it can be degrading. Sometimes these signals get crossed and what was intended to be empowering winds up insulting, and what was intended to be a parody winds up inspiring. The two extremes are separated by such a thin line that it is very easy for filmmakers to slip over into a misinterpreted expression. While empowering is easy enough to get right, parody is twice as easy to get wrong. A filmmaker has to have the right sensibilities that in terms of race can sometimes only come from personal experience. 

Take George A. Romero’s
Night of the Living Dead (1968) for example. Romero cast actor Duane Jones in the lead role because he was the most talented actor to audition. Out of sheer coincidence Jones went on to become an icon for black society because of his characters no nonsense approach to survival. Released just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the film unintentionally added fuel to the growing civil rights movement. The fate of Jones’ character also sparked a tremendous controversy, which was no longer relevant when the 1990 remake came around. Jones, along with Sidney Poitier’s performance as Det. Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) from the previous year, blazed the trail for black empowerment in both Hollywood and mainstream media. Blaxploitation films flooded the market throughout the 1970s and primetime television saw three demographically catered shows competing in primetime. Without even trying, Romero’s flesh-eating opus altered the very fabric of our society and culture. 

It is only when racist exploitation and stereotypes become involved that the fabric of society is in danger of unraveling. Nothing leads to the unraveling of that fabric faster than the misrepresentation of race on screen, and nothing unravels it faster than a character performing in blackface. Occasionally, under supervised conditions, a character in blackface can have an outshining comedic effect. Take
Silver Steak (1976) for example: Richard Pryor, a well-known and respected black comedian, encourages Gene Wilder to cover his face in shoe polish and pretend to be black in order to escape authorities at a train station. If Gene Wilder just got it into his head to do that he would have had a hard time finding work again, Young Frankenstein (1974) or not. But, because Pryor is, in a sense, supervising the scene, his authoritative presence allows audiences to accept and enjoy the degrading nature of the situation. 

C. Thomas Howell & Rae Dawn Chong
Soul Man (1986)

Other attempts at satirizing blackface, such as Soul Man (1986), starring C. Thomas Howell, were not as successful. In the film Howell plays a well to do Harvard Law School student whose father has a change of heart about paying for his son’s education. Through the use of tanning pills Howell manages to exploit an affirmative action scholarship by darkening his complexion. This leads to everyone believing that he is black, and therefore treating him differently throughout the film. The film raises a lot of moral, ethical, and social questions, but through misguided presentation it fails to provide any answers. 

Savion Glover as Mantan &
Tommy Davidson as Sleep'n Eat
Bamboozled (2000)

The most profound and substantial use of blackface in cinema has to be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). The film explores the concepts of race and exploitation through manipulation and degradation. Again, because Spike Lee, who does nothing without a purpose, and says exactly what he means with direct clarity, is initiating this portrayal, audiences accept the use of blackface because they know there is a message accompanying it. Lee pushes the situation to an extreme by having black actors perform in blackface on a modern day minstrel television show. The film totally exaggerates every known perception of black culture and its representation in the mainstream media. It is through the use of blackface that Lee attempts to evoke a connection between the outrageous, degrading, exploitive behavior of black celebrities and that of enforced stereotypes dating all the way back to nineteenth century minstrel shows. The film more or less shows that despite overcoming social adversity the ideals and perceptions of this culturally inherent form of parody and entertainment still reigns in the public mentality. When black rappers and actors go around acting like boisterous thugs, drinking from blinged out chalices they are embracing a caricature of societies expectations. Bamboozled shines a spotlight on this behavior through it’s many characters and highlights the different outcomes for each path.

Most recently Robert Downey, Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award for his blackface performance in Tropic Thunder (2008). His performance, while exploitive and comical, is completely disclosed to the audience as a satirical, exaggerated interpretation. Furthermore, Downey’s character is kept in check by Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), who continually calls him out when he crosses the line of good taste. By acknowledging that what he is doing is blatantly wrong, that makes it easier to accept him as a misguided character and not as a misguided portrayal. Because of the nature of the film, being the making of a film within a film, Downey is able to escape insincere controversy by pretty much being a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude. The popularity and success of Downey’s performance only added to his credibility as an actor in that role. Hell, even Anthony Hopkins played Othello in 1981. Honestly, nobody flips their shit when Eddie Murphy of Dave Chapelle put on whiteface.

The dude playing a dude, disguised as another dude.
The only real way to avoid controversy that infringes on people’s tolerance is by clever casting. If casting directors put in just a little more effort they could easily find solutions to this unique problem of duel racial embodiment. One could argue that by not pursuing accommodating solutions that they are in fact perpetuating the stereotype that all people of a certain race look alike. That is simply not the case. In researching some previous articles I came across a stunning resemblance between races. Might I propose Leon and James Franco sharing the lead role in a Soul Man reboot. Either that, or people could just lighten up (metaphorically). 

Leon & James Franco - Mark Watson
Soul Man (2012?)