Modern Blackface: Offensive Or Just Irreverent?

Read Dawn Turner Trice's Take:

Blackface — white actors in black make-up, perpetuating over-the-top stereotypes of African Americans — was traditional in theater and the movies in the days of segregation. Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice weighs in whether modern takes on blackface are insensitive or just irreverent?

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Now, white actors wearing shoe polish black makeup with monstrous painted lips doing over-the-top stereotypes of African-Americans, that's the history of blackface. It's associated with Jim Crow. In fact, the name Jim Crow comes from a character in a minstrel show. And during segregation, it was an ugly portrayal of people with dark skin. Blackface was traditional in theatre and the movies in the days of segregation and many Hollywood A-listers have performed it, from Katharine Hepburn to Fred Astaire.

Most recently, Robert Downey Jr. and Angeline Jolie are among a long list of white actors doing blackface. From time to time, we turn to Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice. Today, we'll ask, is blackface now aimed at irreverence or is it just insensitive?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Dawn Turner Trice writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune. She joins us from Chicago Public Radio.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you. Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: In what frame do you think we should judge blackface performance today, given its historical past?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I recently posed that question on the Web site because a group of - well, actually, two Northwestern University students, for Halloween, attended a party dressed in blackface. And the campus brass got wind of it and it caused quite a stir, so much so that several student groups organized a forum that attracted nearly 700 people. And they talked about inclusiveness and sensitivity and they revisited the history of blackface and why this is disturbing to some people.

And what I have come to believe is that it becomes offensive when it falls in some - when it fails in some way to be a teachable moment, when it lacks irony or some nod to the absurdity of some issue. You mentioned earlier the movie "Tropic Thunder," and we have Robert Downey Jr. playing a white man playing a black man. And the character received some pushback from audience members but nowhere near as much had the movie not gone to great lengths to have a black character inside the movie talking about just how absurd it was to have this white guy undergo some skin-darkening procedure as well as take Ebonics classes affecting his speech pattern. So, irony is extraordinarily important when dealing with that issue of blackface.

ROBERTS: So, in your view, if somebody points out the absurdity of it, that is better than being sort of clueless and barreling on through.

Ms. TRICE: Well, I think that what happens when you have the incidents with the - for example, the kids at Northwestern who dressed in blackface, when you have it in that context, they don't have - there's no evidence that they understand the history or that they understand why some people might be offended by it. And that is - I think that's where we become - that's when the issue becomes quite troubling.

And it could be the case that the students may have been trying to intentionally offend or just be irreverent, but they're doing it in such an inelegant way that the humor is lost on everybody except for the people involved in it, you know, people at the party, or what have you.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Ellie in Los Gatos, California. Ellie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELLIE (Caller): Oh, hi. When I was in my early 20s, I was a producer/director for live minstrel shows in the Midwest - Wisconsin - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana.

ROBERTS: What year was this, Ellie?

ELLIE: Oh, this was 1954, '55. And I worked with - it was a fundraiser for Lions Clubs and other clubs, local clubs, and they would put on a show. And these were all white people and they would be blackface. I traveled with trunks that were costumes and make-up and music. And the minstrel show was good fun. But looking at it now, I have another perspective, because if you are an African-American, probably this would have been very uncomfortable for you, just as when I see "Merchant of Venice," a Shakespearean production - since I'm Jewish, it is very uncomfortable for me. But that was unfortunate, but it was -they were wonderful shows. I'm sorry that they're gone, but I understand - I understand how an African-American would - it would pierce their heart to see their people made fun of. And I think that's true with any ethnic group.

ROBERTS: Ellie, was there any conversation at the time that it might be offensive or was your audience all white?

ELLIE: The audience was mostly white. Nobody ever thought about it. But I think that was at a time when there was a tremendous - people were, you know, very much - what's the D word - discriminating against - they discriminated. There was a huge amount of discrimination in our culture at that time and people, you know, love to laugh at - at things.

And in movies you would see - just like Hattie McDaniel said when she accepted her Academy Award for "Gone with the Wind," and she was an educated - spoke beautifully, but in "Gone with the Wind" she was a nanny. And you know, and that's hard for people to accept from their race, you know, the stereotypes. It hurts.

ROBERTS: Let's let our guest get in here. Dawn?

Ms. TRICE: Yes. One of the things that I found quite heartening was that the kids at Northwestern - the kids who were offended weren't just black kids. I mean, there were white kids and Asian kids and Hispanic kids. So this is something that was kind of - that was transracial, if you will.

And there was another - there was an incident earlier this year. A blackface production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" came to Chicago and a local black-owned publishing company, Third World Press, protested. And again, the crowd there was a very diverse crowd of people, and there were, you know, a lot of people who actually attended the production. But there were - there was a very - it was a very, very diverse group of people who were protesting.

ROBERTS: Well, that's an interesting case, because there were artistic reasons for that choice, according to the people who put on the production. Does that...

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: ...I mean, should it be judged on its artistic merit?

Ms. TRICE: I think absolutely. And this is - and I mentioned that case because of the people who were protesting, but you're absolutely right. There is an argument to be made for the artistic nature of something. But I do think that it's important that there are people who will come out to protest and they, you know, they yell and scream and they really remind us that there is a historical context. Although you know, you or I, or there are other people who may not be as easily offended or who may say that, you know, there's room for the artistic character or nature of these events. I think it's also important for people to raise the flag when they have issue or when they feel like there's no justification for a blackface or any other type of racial hot-button issue such as that.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Richard in Jacksonville, Florida. Richard, welcome to the program.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just - as an African-American, I wanted to make a comment as to what happens when I see the blackface. And it goes back to a conversation when my daughter asked me who is Jim Crow. And I tried to tell her that it was a series of laws, but she asked, no, who is Jim Crow? She wanted to know who the person Jim Crow was. And that right there - it just struck me so deeply because my daughter, though she was only seven or eight years old, she saw it as there must be a person. And for her, that person looks like her.

So the question would be, why would they try to make fun of somebody that looks like me? The issue to me with blackface even today is that it's not about an artistic expression and it cannot be justified as an artistic expression because it was an outgrowth of a race of people that dominated another of race people so totally that they wiped out the right that that people had to say what they wanted their culture to look like.

So if anyone would say that blackface is an artistic expression and leave out the fact that it's an outgrowth of a powerful race of people that totally wiped out another race of people, or at least removed their right to be artistic on stage, so much so they'd say, we're not going to have black people on this stage, in fact only white people can come on the stage. And if they want black culture, we'll put a blackface on and that's the only way black people will make it to the stage. And that's the comment that it makes today, and I think we really need to talk about it so that we can understand how that type of mindset exists and why it still is present today.

ROBERTS: Richard, thanks for your call.

Ms. TRICE: Right, and it is still very much a hot-button issue, but I do think that there are ways, for example - and we go back to "Tropic Thunder," the way that it is done, if you do include the historical context, and maybe there's a bit of irony and you kind of give the nod to just how ridiculous and actually - and how hurtful it is and was, then I do think that there are some more elegant ways to tackle it, because you can't - I'm not certain that it's something that can be just completely swept under the rug.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Stacey in Boston. Stacey, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STACEY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me. I really couldn't agree more with your previous caller, so I guess one of the things I'll throw in is that, you know, as - I am a woman of color and I do - I did watch "Tropic Thunder" and the movie with Angelina Jolie about Daniel Pearl. And I do want to highlight that in the minds of the people that I know of color, you know, we definitely see a difference between the blackface mockery type of minstrel shows that we've seen, even the group of five in Australia that did the mockery of the Jackson 5 by going in full blackface, darker than the actual Jacksons are, with the exaggerated lips and hair, that we do see a difference between that type of inappropriate mockery and the type of portrayals that came across from Robert Downey Jr. and from Angelina Jolie in their roles, where they were taking on a particular character and making a particular statement, that you could see through their role.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Stacey, thanks for your call.

Ms. TRICE: I think another reason why this is so, so - such a sensitive issue, is that it touches on the whole notion of black skin, and it not - or as the caller just said, the features, the distortion of the features and all of that has been such a sensitive issue for many in the black community. Whether, you know, it's preferable to have lighter skin or darker skin. And all of that is kind of interwoven in the whole notion of blackface as well.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from Kate in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kate, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KATE (Caller): Hi. Thank you. My question is in relation to the movie "White Chicks" that came out a couple of years ago, I believe it was the Wayans Brothers who did it. And I was just wondering if you'd thought that there was any significance or if you know of any outcry in response to that movie, where the roles were kind of reversed. There was definitely some mockery and stereotyping there, and I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.

Ms. TRICE: Well, and I hear that argument a lot, that, well, why can - you know, it's kind of this political correctness or political correctness gone -run amuck - why are blacks so sensitive and, you know, when the reverse is true, when you do have issues such as that "White Chicks" movie. But the difference often is history. When you didn't have connected to those stereotypes or to those depictions, I mean, such an ugly history, and I think that that's where the - where these issues start to separate.

ROBERTS: That it's more about power when you consider the history and the power dynamics between whites and blacks is very clear.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: Also, you know, these lines are so blurry considering there was a lot about "White Chicks" that was really sexist, you know?

Ms. TRICE: Right. Absolutely. Yes. I thought it was interesting too that, you know, in - as an example, in "Grey's Anatomy," when there was a black doctor, the character Miranda Bailey, who was for years called the Nazi, and I'm not certain that that would've worked. It would've been a harder sell if the doctor had been a blonde-eyed - you know, a blonde, blue-eyed white male, you know, doctor.

So I think it's all - there are the nuances that have to be there to kind of, you know, to make these work, whether they work or not for everybody, but to get them through kind of this filter.

ROBERTS: Well, do you think that that filter always exists? I mean, I'm thinking about the "America's Next Top Model" when Tyra Banks had all of the model contestants pose as various peculiar combinations of race and colored some of them very dark and some of them sort of cafe au lait and just changed the sort of look and color of all of the models in a somewhat arbitrary way.

Ms. TRICE: I think that some of this is generational and that people are - you know, there are those who are kind of playing with these archetypes in ways that, you know, would not have been maybe 20, 30 years ago, because people would've, you know, felt that they were so offensive. So I do think that you have a younger generation of people who see it differently and who don't necessarily give it the level of reverence - skin color and all of these - all of the issues attendant to race - that maybe, you know, people who were actually fighting in the '60s, the '50s and '60s, that maybe they see it in a different way.

ROBERTS: I was trying to remember the last time I saw a production of someone in blackface and it was an opera, it was "Othello." And the justification there was that it was about the voice. And since Othello is supposed to be a Moor, they put the baritone, who was white, in blackface. Do you buy that justification?

Ms. TRICE: I do in that it is - there is an artistic nature to it. Now, and I know that there - and I've had many readers say that you can, you know, that we cross a line or why not get a black - why not give that job to a black performer? And I understand that. But I mean, if I look at, for example, is it Fred Armisen...

ROBERTS: Right.

Ms. TRICE: ...who plays - on "Saturday Night Live" who plays...

ROBERTS: The president.

Ms. TRICE: ...Barack Obama, the president? I think that, you know, you - there is definitely an argument to be made about giving the job to a black opera singer or an actor. But if you have someone who is incredibly talented - in this case, Fred is part Asian, part Hispanic, I think if it works, it works.

And by the way, I loved Billy Crystal's depiction of Sammy Davis, Jr., remember when he was on "Saturday Night Live." I thought he did a great job.

ROBERTS: Dawn Turner Trice writes the Exploring Race column for the Chicago Tribune. She joined us from Chicago Public Radio. Thanks so much.

Ms. TRICE: Thank you.

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