Blackface, whitewashing and the grey zone – a two-part video inquiry

Who gets to play who on screen – and how?

In the first part of these two video essays, Leigh Singer looks at Hollywood’s shifting but stubborn history of racial blacklisting and white privilege. In the second part he turns to the ongoing ambiguities of satire, ridicule and comedic othering, and probes today’s prevailing controversies of cultural elision and appropriation.

* Voted one of the best video essays of 2019!


Part one

If only every film that dealt in blackface, whitewashing and other racial slurs were The Birth of a Nation.

Not that D.W. Griffith’s technical and historical milestone need ever be replicated. The dynamic mise-en-scène and editing, which helped found Classical Hollywood Cinema, quickly became the dominant industry style. But the glorifying of the Ku Klux Klan, denigration of African-Americans, and elision of those very people by having white actors play up malicious black stereotypes is so mind-bogglingly relentless and shameless that its white supremacist agenda is beyond question. The film’s notoriety today – for it wasn’t always so – is down there with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi paean Triumph of the Will; you may admire the expertise of the telling, but if you don’t abhor the politics of the story, you’re guilty by association.

Extreme cases can also be more casual. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the gossamer-chic valentine to 1960s Manhattan and Audrey Hepburn, also contains one of the most disgraceful Asian caricatures on film, Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed klutz Mr. Yunioshi. Even its most ardent fans now surely cringe whenever Rooney appears, even if they still swoon over Moon River.

Rooney’s appearances are mercifully brief. But what of those films where a black (or brown, red, or yellow)-face role, or, more commonly, a whitewashed character – an ethnic minority portrayed or replaced by a white actor – is key to the story? It’s more prevalent, and sometimes more subtle, than one might imagine. At a time where identity politics and racial tensions seem to dominate social discourse, reactions to call out, condemn and, sometimes, ‘cancel’ those who facilitate offences can be fast and furious.

Righteous anger at a depressingly persistent practice is one thing. But one can, on occasion, also identify a self-righteous impulse at work, which seems to deny more complex, nuanced ideas of representation. Is Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface actor in Tropic Thunder simply unacceptable, or an incisive, funny takedown of a misguided thespian’s attempts at ‘authenticity’? Does Wes Anderson’s animated Japanese fantasy Isle of Dogs honour its national setting, or exploit it? And whose opinion counts?

This two-part video essay traces the steps that led from The Birth of a Nation to the growth of an insidious tradition in American film. It then also seeks to unpick past and more recent contentious cases. For in such a fascinating, important cultural debate, perhaps a black-and-white litmus test doesn’t help us see the bigger picture.


Part two

The first social media criticisms emerged within hours of last month’s announcement: that Will Smith was potentially lined up to play Richard Williams, father and coach of tennis legends Venus and Serena, in a new biopic, King Richard. Williams, like his daughters, has a much darker skin tone than Smith. Cries of ‘colourism’ and inappropriate casting were quickly countered by voices – from diverse backgrounds – dismissing these claims. News stories about the ‘controversy’ and ‘backlash’ were promptly written, thinkpieces for and against hastily assembled. All, mind, about a spec script yet to be greenlit.

Polarised times inevitably produce vociferous reactions on either side of a debate. Issues like colourism, and its shamefaced cousins blackface and whitewashing, in the arts cannot, and should not, be casually dismissed. As part 1 of this video essay explored, the easy cases to judge are the most egregious: The Birth of a Nation’s flagrant white supremacy; lazy, racist caricatures in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry; or the most shameless examples of white actors in ethnically different roles (Joel Edgerton browned up as Pharaoh Ramses in Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings).

Part 2 addresses what appear to be less clear-cut instances – though again, there will be many who see even these examples as absolutes. When citing Will Smith’s acceptability to portray Richard Williams, some comments highlighted perceived double-standards for those who gave actor Chadwick Boseman a free pass for playing the much-lighter skinned Thurgood Marshall. Is colourism only problematic if moving from dark (character) to light (performer)? And if whitewashing denies minorities a chance to represent their own history, how does that affect actors of one cultural background playing a character of a different, if similar, skin-toned ethnicity? What of, to cite Boseman’s justification for accepting the Marshall role, the notion of searching for the interior “spirit of the man” in question, rather than fixating on his outward appearance?

If some of these questions defy easy answers, we still need to call out blatant cop-outs. The Simpsons’s official response to opposition of the Hank Azaria-voiced Apu was a shockingly outdated conservative move for a show long proud of its radical perspective. It’s also important to acknowledge progress where it comes. Perhaps the biggest future litmus test of all will be the casting decision of what’s surely a biopic-in-waiting that literally embodies the entire subject: the case of Rachel Dolezal.

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