Sunday, March 04, 2012

Blackin' Up At The Oscars

One of my pet peeves is comedians complaining about how restricted they are by political correctness. I just find the evidence of this unpersuasive. And my feelings seem to be validated by what happened at the Oscars last Sunday, and what hasn't happened in the week since: Billy Crystal appeared on national TV in blackface, and it doesn't seem like a particularly big deal. For that matter, a white man (well, he's half-Latino, but I don't think that really makes much of a difference) has been portraying both the first black president and the black governor of New York on Saturday Night Live for several years, and nobody seems to care much. Oh sure, some people object, but it doesn't seem to rise to a level of having a negative effect on either of their careers. In the decade since ABC fired Bill Maher, only two comics have come under serious fire for anything that could be called "political incorrectness," one for standing on stage in a comedy club and calling a black audience member a nigger while screaming about lynching him at the top of his lungs, the other for saying that if his son was gay, he'd stab him in the head. That's a pretty extreme standard to set for political correctness, and it's worth noting that, despite the uproar, Tracy Morgan's career doesn't seem to have suffered much from the incident, and Michael Richards didn't really have a career going on at the time anyway. (From what I understand, Morgan's joke was in the context of playing an explicitly ignorant character, and I kinda think Richards may have been trying to do something similar but just failed to pull it off.) And those were comics in the public eye. I spend a lot of time in comedy clubs, and most nights you'll hear a LOT of jokes based on stereotypes of race, gender and orientation from comics nobody could give a shit about. So no, I don't think there's a particularly pernicious code of political correctness in the comedy world. Other fields, maybe, but comedy? No

Not that Crystal isn't being criticized. Just not enough to have any significant impact on his career. Kendra James wrote a very on-point post about the incident on the Racialicious blog, for instance. I especially like this comparison: "Blackface on national television? Yes, fine. A brown woman gives middle finger at the Superbowl a month earlier? Dear God in heaven, the horror. No one appears to be forcing Crystal to give the apology MIA was pushed into." I absolutely agree that the MIA incident was nothing but bullshit, whereas the Billy Crystal actually is something worth discussing. I'm not sure the fact that MIA's a brown woman has anything to do with it--people would likely be just as angry if Kid Rock or Eminem (just two white guys that come to mind as people who would be likely to raise a middle finger on TV) had done it. But then she kind of loses me with this: "We all know blackface is offensive. I’m sure the show’s producers know blackface is offensive. The response should be simple: Just don’t do it." I don't know. I just naturally recoil at any kind of attempt to beat nuance out of a conversation, and that's exactly what's happening here. It's really not as simple as "don't do it."

I'm not a particular fan of Billy Crystal, so it's strange that I'm going to defend him, but I always feel like discussions of this kind of stuff always fall into this polarized criticism, with people on either side taking positions that don't allow for any nuance, and I think the subject warrants more discussion. So, OK, blackface in the classical incarnation is offensive. Ugh, I hate that word, "offensive," but let's go with it for now. The question is, why is it offensive? After all, caricature is the language of comedy. It's not offensive for a comedic actor to alter their appearance to more closely resemble a famous figure, or to become a character of a different gender, weight or age. Is race any different? Of course it is, given America's history. But is becoming a character of a different race inherently offensive?

Well, to an extent, yes. But what is it about classical blackface that is so offensive? I would say there are two things that really make it different from an incident such as this. First, there's the context of the time. In the early 20th Century, racial caricatures were basically the only portrayals of black people in the media at all. The only context in which you could see a black person in the media was as a caricature of a dumb, silly character. Now, I'm not going to act like Hollywood has solved their race problem and everything is fine and dandy now because Octavia Spencer won an Oscar. Watching movies, TV or whatever other media, its impossible not to see the underrepresentation of black performers (and even moreso behind the camera), and the misrepresentation of black life, and of course that goes for just about any ethnicity other than white. But we certainly don't live in a world where black people are simply denied a voice in the way they were 50 years ago. Let's at least acknowledge that distinction.

For my second point, let me post an example. Above is a video of Emmett Miller and Ches Davis doing a blackface routine in 1951. Watch this performance and ask yourself: what is the joke? I would say that the joke is that black people are stupid. I mean, there are other jokes in there, but the basic idea permeating the skit is to get the audience to laugh at the mental inferiority of black people. This is true of most of those offensive cartoons, of the roles played by black actors like Steppin Fetchit, of basically any portrayal of black people before the 50's AT LEAST. Now look at Billy Crystal's brief joke about Sammy Davis, Jr. Sammy shows up in the back of a time-traveling cab a la Midnight in Paris, and what does he say? "Get in, let's go kill Hitler." Which is kind of the coolest fucking thing a time-traveler could say. There's no joke here at the expense of Sammy Davis, Jr.

One more thing to ask: would it have looked ridiculous for Billy Crystal to portray Sammy Davis Jr. in a skit without blacking up? Would anyone have even gotten the joke? In her post, James posits that they could have gotten any black comic actor who was present to do the Sammy Davis Jr. part and avoided the controversy altogether, which is fair enough, but it doesn't really address the issue, because it still insists that a white person wearing black makeup is inherently offensive, which I guess brings us back to the beginning of this argument.

Man, I'm hesitant to post this. Not because I'm afraid of being criticized by liberals, but I really don't want to get a bunch of compliments from racists.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh please, Billy Crystal was not in Blackface, he was in makeup to look like a Black man, there is a big difference!

Blackface is associated with the minstrel tradition and is a STYLE OF MAKE-UP that presents a highly exaggerated caricature that Antebellum whites devised to represent African-Americans. Blackface utilizes a shoe-polish black base with large red portions superseding the lip area-- it has a clownish look.

The type of make-up/disguise Billy was wearing was to look like a REAL BLACK MAN, using a natural skin color and facial features that do not portray a racist caricature-- but in fact, actually appear like a real person. The Wayans movie "White Girls" did a similar thing, using realistic make up techniques to transform them to appear like real white girls.

The people who claim Crystal was in blackface are people who want to point out racism in show biz culture (which does exist) but are ignorant about the real history of racism and are going about it in the wrong way. They are actually taking away from legit critiques of racism in Hollywood.

3/08/2012 10:54 AM  

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