Saturday, August 09, 2008

Actors in Black-face an Enduring Hollywood Symbol

According to an LA Times interview by Chris Lee, actor Robert Downey Jr. was excited at the prospect of working with actor-director Ben Stiller on the comedy 'Tropic Thunder' , but he looked at playing a role in black-face with trepidation.

Downey, (pictured left in character) plays intense Oscar-winning Australian Method actor Kirk Lazarus, who darkens his skin to completely immerse himself in the role of Sgt. Lincoln Osiris.

As far back as March, 2008 the images and promotional stills from the movie's trailer were fueling speculation about the possible backlash from a white actor in black-face in a comedy.

White actors portraying African-American characters in films isn't a new phenomenon by any means. In 1927 entertainer Al Jolson performed in black-face in Hollywood's first feature-length musical, Warner Brother's hit "The Jazz Singer". (If you'd like to see a brief clip of Jolson singing 'Mammy' check out the video clip I posted below at the end of this blog entry.)

More recently, the decision to cast Angelina Jolie as the mixed-race Cuban-American wife of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in the 2007 movie "Mighty at Heart" stirred some controversy among critics confused why an actual bi-racial actress like Thandie Newton, who'd demonstrated screen presence, range and ability in successful films like 'Crash ' and 'Mission Impossible II' wasn't offered the role. Especially given the lack of juicy parts that are available for an actress of color in mainstream Hollywood releases.

My take is that people who might be quick to react negatively towards 'Tropic Thunder' because of Downey in black-face should step back and remember it is satire. The entire point of having Downey's character choose to play Sgt. Lincoln Osiris in black-face is lampooning the entertainment industry executives who routinely make the kinds of casting decisions that put Angelina Jolie into a role that would have been more true to the ethnicity of the character had it been played by an actress of color.

Downey is intelligent, socially responsible and hugely talented (If you haven't seen his performance in 'Chaplin' put it on your Netflix right now) there's no way he'd take on a roll in black-face without knowing it was intelligently written, or that the black-face itself was an organic component of the story, character and script.

The film takes a comedic swipe at Hollywood actors and filmmakers who create war movies, in particular some of the over-the-top seriousness with which they prepare for fictional roles as soldiers and the assorted idiosyncrasies of the studio heads, producers and directors who bankroll and make these films.

Black-face is just one component of entertainment director/co-writer Ben Stiller lampoons in this film. I don't think it's inappropriate to use black-face in satire, as Downey himself observed in an Entertainment Weekly interview:

“If it’s done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago. If you don’t do it right, we’re going to hell.”

This isn't the overtly racist minstrel-type of art of the late 19th and early 20th century. Minstrels were white performers who dressed up in black-face to lampoon the physical characteristics, dress, habits and lifestyles of African-Americans and more importantly; play upon and reinforce stereotypes. But remember there were black minstrels too!

Weird. Black performers in black face lampooning themselves to entertain audiences. What's wrong with that picture? Director Spike Lee explored this question in his 2000 film, 'Bamboozled'

The speculative buzz about possible backlash is just that, mostly from people who haven't even seen the movie. It reflects the unhealed pain of this imagery - which was commonplace in America and other countries for years and has inflicted a lot of internal psychological damage to the psyche of black people.

I think Downey's role is a positive thing, one of the ways we evolve culturally is to develop the capacity to look at ourselves and the past honestly. What did black-face and minstrel imagery in entertainment and media look like? Check out this montage of minstrel clips edited together by Spike Lee for his 2000 social satire, 'Bamboozled.'

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