Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person.In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. What was once the norm of American entertainment is quite offensive today, because often blackface would make perpetuate a negative stereotype of the African American race.

Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor brought blackface to the cinema with their popular musicals of the 1930s. Each of their films would usually include one number in blackface. For the Al Jolson musical Big Boy in 1930, Jolson was in blackface the entire movie. However, by the late 1930s Hollywood were using blackface less and less in their films. Bing Crosby, who strived for race equality throughout his career appeared in blackface in three of his movies: Holiday Inn (1942), Dixie (1943), and Here Comes The Waves (1945). Eddie Cantor appeared in blackface in his last movie If You Knew Susie (1948), and Betty Hutton appeared in blackface in the musical Somebody Loves Me as late as 1952.

Is it ever okay for a white to perform in blackface? In 1936 when the lead in touring company of Orson Welles' Voodoo Macbeth (Maurice Ellis) fell ill, Welles stepped temporarily into the part and played the role in blackface.

An example of the fascination in American culture with racial boundaries and the color line is demonstrated in the popular duo Amos 'n' Andy, characters played by two white men who performed the show in blackface. They gradually stripped off the blackface makeup during live 1929 performances while continuing to talk in dialect. This fascination with color boundaries had been well-established since the beginning of the century, as it also had been before the Civil War.

Bing Crosby
The wearing of blackface was once a traditional part of the annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Growing dissent from civil rights groups and the offense of the black community led to a 1964 official city policy ruling out blackface. Also in 1964, bowing to pressure from the interracial group Concern, teenagers in Norfolk, Connecticut, reluctantly agreed to discontinue using blackface in their traditional minstrel show that was a fund-raiser for the March of Dimes.

In 1980, an underground film, Forbidden Zone, was released, directed by Richard Elfman and starring the band Oingo Boingo, which received controversy for blackface sequences.

In 1993, white actor Ted Danson ignited a firestorm of controversy when he appeared at a New York Friars' Club roast in blackface, delivering a risqué shtick written by his then love interest, African-American comedian Whoopi Goldberg. Recently, gay white performer Chuck Knipp has used drag, blackface, and broad racial caricature while portraying a character named "Shirley Q. Liquor" in his cabaret act, generally performed for all-white audiences. Knipp's outrageously stereotypical character has drawn criticism and prompted demonstrations from black, gay and transgender activists.

Blackface and minstrels also serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style in a series concept in an attempt to get himself fired, and is instead horrified by its success.

Robert Downey Jr

In 2008, the film Tropic Thunder had Robert Downey Jr. in an Oscar-nominated performance where he plays a Caucasian Australian actor who is so committed to method acting an African-American character that he has his skin surgically darkened and clumsily lecturing to his bemused African-American co-players about racial politics. Aware of the racial connotations that could be misconstrued, Director Ben Stiller had the film screened for a group of African American journalists and representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They in turn responded positively and reassured Stiller that they understood the artistic intent of the character.

While I am against banning classic Hollywood films that have blackface, I do believe it is an outdated "form of entertainment" that is almost embarrassing to sit through in 2015. It is a shame that stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor used it so often in their movies, because they were quite talented. I guess when blackface is used in a "tasteful" way to tell the story and not to show a racial stereotype like in Tropic Thunder then it is okay. It is a fine line though and not matter how you look at it in 2015, blackface might not of meant to be a form of racism when it was popular in movies in the 1930s, but it is highly racial by today's standards and should be...

Eddie Cantor

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