New Book ‘Blackface’ Examines Hollywood’s Painful, Enduring Ties to Racist Performances

·7 min read

Conversations about Blackface, when white people darken their skin to perform exaggerated versions of nonwhite characters, often centers on the historical when it comes to the media’s role in perpetuating the racist act.

In some cases, historical means the minstrels of 19th century theater, silent films, or the more recent history of satire like Robert Downey Jr.’s 2008 film “Tropic Thunder,” which has aged horribly in a Hollywood landscape that demands sensitive and authentic portrayals, regardless of genre.

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But it’s not always about decades or centuries ago. In the past seven days, however, at least three headlines directly or indirectly involved the damaging tradition have run — from the aesthetics of the Kardashian-Jenner family, to the astonishing rebound of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, to the crisis team helping fashion label Prada recover from scandal.

In short, says academic and author Ayanna Thompson, the continued prevalence of Blackface — both in content and old images of prominent figures — is not so easily explained away by heartfelt apologies and warning labels on classic movies.

In her new book “Blackface,” Thompson calls it “the ultimate zombie performance mode,” a practice that will not die despite the numerous icons and world leaders taken down by backlash, and countless think pieces about the stereotypes it feeds. Last summer, comedians and entertainers seemed to reach some resolve around the issue following the murder of George Floyd, with power players like Tina Fey and Jimmy Kimmel decrying past works and disappearing images of Blackface from their libraries.

Thompson recently discussed her new book with Variety, on a topic she finds increasingly relevant for creators and executives in show business who may lack deeper context around this issue.

This topic is sadly evergreen, but what specifically got you thinking about exploring this topic in book form?

In 2012, when my son was in the third grade, he had to do a research project where the students had to pick a famous person from history and present as that person. My son was William Shakespeare, and my little brown son was not in white face. That would never have occurred to him or to me. There were three [white] 8-year-olds in Blackface, performing their heroes Martin Luther King, Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe. I could not believe it.

These were little kids. Whose idea was it to put the makeup on? Whose idea was it that this was a form of celebration? Whose idea was that, to fully inhabit your hero, you had to employ racial prosthetics? When I asked teachers and other parents, no one though it was an issue. When I approached the principal, he thought I was insane. I could see through his eyes that I was in irrationally angry Black woman. It dawned on me that white privilege meant this principal didn’t feel he had to know this history. He didn’t feel this was something we shared collectively. It’s taken me 10 years to write this book. I had to write something that people could hand to their teachers, their friends, their colleagues, students, to say ‘Here’s why this is problematic.’ Why don’t Black and brown kids think that they should put white face on when they’re doing Halloween costumes? What is it that white people think when they’re putting on Halloween costumes, doing special projects, that Black makeup is part of what they should do? The book is an exploration on that. And I take it seriously that this is our shared American history. The onus can’t be on people of color to carry this history forward. We’ve killed Blackface several times in our history, but it keeps coming back to life because of this unwillingness to have it be our collective history. I hope this book is the last book about this.

One of the most interesting things in the book is a concept you introduce called “white innocence,” can you unpack that?

Before I get there — the history of performing Black and brown people on English-speaking stages has always been a white property. Since the middle ages, when there have been devilish characters in religious plays, and then non-religious works in Shakespeare’s time where they had tons of Africans and Moors and Turks all performed with racial prosthetics. This includes makeup, fake noses, wigs, and so on. We’ve got hundreds of years of Black characters in performance being a white property. That’s important as a foundation for what allows people to believe in their own white innocence.

For example, when you’re Megyn Kelly defending Luann de Lesseps’ doing Blackface as Diana Ross in 2018 saying, “But who doesn’t want to be Diana Ross for a day?” White innocence is, “I love Black people, I love Black culture.” This was also Governor Ralph Northam, when he performed as Michael Jackson [in 1984]. Same for Justin Trudeau. This idea that you can celebrate Black culture, Black heroes, identities by putting on Black makeup. On some weird unconscious level, that patches into some hundreds of years old history, that to be a Black character in a play or a film is actually to be a white person performing that. That’s where white innocence stems from. I do ask, are Black and brown people not as innocent because we don’t presume that this is a performance mode that is open to us?

Comedy specifically seems to be a big problem area over the past few decades, why is that?

I feel like the birth of Blackface minstrelsy as a genre is the 19th century. It lives a long time well into the 20th century — even the BBC had a minstrel show that was on primetime until 1978. In the Black arts movement in the late 1960s, there was an attempt by BIPOC artists to say, “We’re going to create our own art where we can represent ourselves fully.” That helped kill Blackface minstrelsy.

Weirdly, by the time we get to the ’80s, it comes back. It’s the birth of the neo-conservative and the Reagan presidency. “The Cosby Show” was huge and there was a feeling of, “We’re so over all the problems.” This was also when neo-cons had started celebrating that they embraced a colorblind approach to the world — which was, “We no longer have to see, talk or think about race because we’re all equal.” Then you see this flare up of Blackface. You really saw it hugely right before and right after Barack Obama’s election. I think it had the same ethos of “We are post racial and racist.”

Let’s talk about all of the comedians: Jimmy Fallon doing Chris Rock on “SNL,” Jimmy Kimmel doing Oprah Winfrey and Carl Malone on “The Man Show,” Sarah Silverman doing a whole Blackface routine on “The Sarah Silverman Program,” four episodes of “30 Rock,” and five years of Fred Armisen as Obama on “SNL”. All of this happened in the 21st century. And let’s not even to get into “Tropic Thunder” and “Zoolander.”

There was a desire by comedians. Not explicitly in their ideological thinking, but a feeling of “I’m post-racial, I can’t be a racist.” So all of these things I have studied and noticed is that all of those people are students of comedy. They’re all interested in pushing the boundaries of comedy and thinking about what’s taboo. This was something that had been taboo, and now they’re like, “We want to see if we can do it!’ Since it’s clear that I’m not racist, I can do it!”

Your hope is that this book will be resonant within the walls of show business, why?

Because that’s a hard climb. I don’t think people in the industry are reading anything other than what they create. It would be nice if there was someone to say, “We should talk about this.” Perhaps the Academy could sponsor a book club or something. I think about the way that television and film has moved dramatically away from something simple like depictions of people smoking. They recognized that that was a harm, something actively harming the public because it was creating perceptions of smoking as either sexy or something you do when you need self care. We’ve moved away from that pretty hard, to the benefit of society. This was obviously a collective decision. They could all come to the collective decision that Blackface is a public harm and we can play a role in stopping it. That would be the ultimate goal.

“Blackface,” published by Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons label, is currently for sale.

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