Is Blackface Ever Okay?

Blackface and yellowface makeups have always made me cringe.
Rose WurgelRose Wurgel (in makeup)
I can live with a lot of movie fat-suits – though not the cheap fat jokes. But blackface and yellowface are different. It’s bad enough in a dramatic role that avoids stereotyping but when it’s done for fun in a “fakeover” show it’s really disturbing. It’s odd because I don’t see anything wrong in and of itself with an actress playing a character whose ethnic origin is other than her own (anymore than I objected to Rock Hudson playing all those straight roles) but…

The whole issue is entangled (possibly inseparably) with the issues of how non-whites have been portrayed in films and, for decades, the practical exclusion of non-white actors and actresses from the Hollywood system But it’s more than that.
Renee SparksRenee Sparks (in makeup)
There’s a lot of interesting information on the issues around yellowface and blackface and their ignoble history in the movies in Robert Ito’s ‘A Certain Slant‘ (Bright Lights Film Journal) and at Bambizzoozled.

So what about the forthcoming FX Networks show Black.White. which according to the press release ‘examines race with an extraordinary approach by putting new faces on an African-American family, the Sparks, and Caucasian family, the Wurgels’? The BBC did something similar, though far less ambitous, in a show called Trading Races a couple of years ago but I was deeply unconvinced that anything of value came out of it (or by the makeups for that matter).
Carmen WurgelCarmen Wurgel (in makeup)
But Black.White. does come with powerful backing from Ice Cube. The makeups are by Keith Vanderlaan, and the first publicity images showing Rose Wurgel transformed into a black girl looked convincing; I am less sure about about the more recent images showing the transformation of Renee Sparks into a white woman.

Hopefully, Black.White. will live up to its aspiration to be extraordinarily provocative, entertaining and deep. It’s a big ask. One thing that worries me is that if (maybe especially if) it is even half-way decent it will open the floodgates for a whole set of valueless black-for-a-day investigations like the recent plague of ‘investigative’ fat-suits.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog 🙂
    Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day 🙂

  2. Ashcan

     /  12/01/2008

    Heres my comment on your black face ‘King Kong’ photo.

    A lot of people never realized that the islanders in K.K. were NOT intended to be Black people, those people were basically mutants who were a race all to themselves, they had nothing to do with Black people or Africa, it was the producers idea to escape any and all charges of using racist BF makeup, under the makeup there were actual Africans, Asians, Latinos, African-Americans as well as whites. I personally am Black and I hate black face because it conjures up memories of it’s original intent and that was to demonise and marginalize African-American people, but the producers cleverly managed to avoid that trap, and you you look at their skin color, it was a blueish, brownish, grey tone, not very Black at all.

  3. Well I’m a white European of an age to have ‘ innocently’ read adventures like H Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines etc) and the Tarzan novels etc where ‘native’ populations – African or otherwise – were depicted for the most part as superstitious savages unless led by a white queen. The original King Kong stood fair and square in this tradition and whoever was under the makeup in the latest remake the islanders resonated with images like the ‘sub-human’ Andaman Islander in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories – whatever the intentions of, or window-dressing from, the film-makers

    Blackface is not just about minstrels or demeaning portrayals of African-Americans; ‘Red Indians’ are a pretty obvious example, and the Chinese and Japanese, for instance, probably find yellow-face portrayals equally insulting. Then, as in King Kong, there is the way in which ‘primitive’ tribal people have been portrayed.

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