Atlanta Film Festival New Blog Home

Twitter Updates

Friday, August 15, 2008

It's Not Blackface

The major debate surrounding Tropic Thunder concerns the use of the word "retard." What's been consistently mentioned by many folks is the surprise that Downey Jr.'s performance hasn't raised the collective ire of Black folks, or just people in general, across the nation. (I did find a few protests, but they're mostly minor.) In the minds of many, since Downey's role has been so integral to the marketing and plays so much more prominent role in the film's story, it would have been the likely target for blowback. Here's an example from Spoutblog:
Tropic Thunder is taking heavy fire, not for Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface performance, but rather for Ben Stiller’s spoof movie-within-a-movie, Simple Jack.
What irks me is that there seems to be a general misunderstanding of what is and isn't blackface. While Downey's character has his skin darkened, it's not exaggerated. He's not wearing the characteristic red lip outline or the black charcoal base. Nor is his military uniform even a part of the minstrel/blackface code. Most importantly, the archetype--stereotypical as it is, which is kind of the point--he's portraying doesn't have its roots in the minstrel tradition. As with Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman playing Simple Jack, the archetype has more to do with actors and the lengths they'll go to for authenticity and to prove themselves as actors. (In Thunder, Speedman dons an awful bowl haircut and buckteeth to play the role of Jack.)

Christain Bale lost 63 lbs for The Machinist, only to pack back on 100 lbs to play Batman. Charlize Theron famously "went ugly" to play the lead in Monster. By most accounts, that she started her career as a model, only added resonance to the move. Actors have and do indeed go to great lengths to disappear into their roles. But, do they have to go so far? Even Orson Welles donned a fake nose for his role in The Long Hot Summer.

This is sliding into another tangent, so let me get back on track.

There's a little movie called The Watermelon Man from 1970. It's about a White man who suddenly wakes up Black. He tries to live his life the same way as he did before the inexplicable transformation, but finds his daily routine interpreted differently by his family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
To play the role Godfrey Cambridge (another great actor few folks know about) had to wear white makeup. When he turns Black, they simply removed the white makeup. It's not the most convincing effect, but it works enough for the purposes of the movie. Which is the most important thing. Could this movie be told any other way? Especially in 1970?

For the time period, being produced just a scant 6 years after the signing of the Civil Rights act of 1964, the movie wouldn't have been able escape the blackface label if a White actor had taking the role, even with Melvin Van Peebles behind the lens. Let's not forget that Sidney Poitier was still having to answer questions as a Black actor and not as just an actor.

Considering it partially plays on a few stereotypes of white people, could it be called whiteface? Note: I'm not saying that whiteface--if it exists--in anyway has the same negative impact that blackface does. I don't even to look it up to tell you that all 10 actors up for Best Actor noms that year were White*. Or that the top grossing films of the year all featured White leads. Okay, I did look at the grosses for 1970:

1. Love Story Paramount $48,700,000
2. Airport Universal $45,220,000
3. M*A*S*H 20th Century Fox $36,720,000

As you can see, this little movie did no damage. Nor did White Chicks--although the damage it did to the Wayans brothers' rep is probably more measurable. Why Keenen? Why?

It's now 2008. Does the term blackface have the same meaning? It's a question that Spike Lee tackled in 2000 with Bamboozled. And I think a look at this montage...

...from the movie reinforces for me at least, that Downey Jr. is not in, or doing, blackface. Watch for a key scene near the end--of Tropic and not this youtube clip--as Downey's Kirk Lazarus "reemerges" for further proof about what the film's poking fun at.

To say otherwise totally undermines the negative role real blackface had on Black actors, Hollywood, America's perceptions of Black people and Black folk's perceptions of themselves. Almost any Black person of a certain age can tell you at least one story about being told what to do or not do around White people, lest their actions reinforce particular stereotypes about Black folks.

Blackface spawned 150 years of racist films, radio programs, tv shows, stage plays and products. Blackface was not just a cultural phenomenon, it was an entire industry.

*Actually, James Earl Jones was nominated for Best Actor for The Great White Hope. Foot in mouth? Maybe a toe, but not a full foot. :-) Charles

1 comment:

Paula said...

He went Full Blackface! ;)