A look at African American actors playing white roles and vice versa...
It’s amazing how a little conversation at work can start a hub. Add to that an old picture you find of yourself from a few years ago and you have more content. Do a little research and you have the proverbial “can of worms” with the lid clearly removed and laying innocuously at the side of the can. That’s what happened to me this week.
In the town where I live in rural Ontario they were holding a “minstrel” show. It was the 60th anniversary of the show and there was even one of the original cast performing. I didn’t attend, but heard about it after the event. My work colleagues were discussing how the singers are no longer permitted to “black out” their faces like they did in the original days, but that the show was still very excellent. After leaving work I got to thinking about the whole “black face” thing and wondered how celebrities in movies represent blacks and whites.
Where does the old picture of yourself come in, I hear you ask? Well, as part of leading a youth group, we would hold an annual “Where’s Waldo?” event at the local mall. Kids would have a few hours to find as many Waldo’s walking around as they could. They had pictures of the people acting as Waldos, but each Waldo could disguise themselves as much as they wanted. One year I went all out and did the whole “black face” thing and was pushed around the mall in a wheelchair by another person who was unknown to the youth. At the time I thought nothing of it and the disguise was excellent as nobody found me. Yet, following the conversation at work, I wondered what others would think about it. Was it a big deal? Was it all harmless fun? My intention was not to offend for sure.
So my hunt began and this is what I discovered…
White actors dressed as black characters (blackfaced)...
In 1927, the American musical film “The Jazz Singer” was released. It told the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a Jewish singer who went against his devout family to sing, you guessed it, as a jazz singer. The story in itself was not earth shattering, but the star of the film, Al Jolson, performed the role of Jakie in “blackface”. The movie was a success grossing US$126 million in 2005 dollars. Jolson himself was dubbed, “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”, a name that stuck for over 40 years. Yet, his fame came by altering his appearance to look like a black person. Then again the culture in 1927 was very different than today.
In 2008, Dreamworks Pictures released the Vietnam comedy film “Tropic Thunder”. The plot revolves around the filming of a movie telling a Vietnam veteran’s memoirs, with comedic twists. The actor Robert Downey Jr, again in “blackface”, plays one of the characters in the film, a black soldier named Kirk Lazarus. In the movie, Lazarus is a white actor who undergoes a controversial face coloring to play the part of the black soldier. Tropic Thunder grossed US$188 million worldwide. The question remains though, why a black actor was not used to portray the soldier? Was it for purely comedic reasons? Or perhaps a little bit of controversy sells movies?
Of course, we cannot forget Sir Laurence Olivier blacked out in his memorable role in Shakespeare’s "Othello" either.
Black actors dressed as white characters (whitefaced)...
Now let’s switch this up a bit. In 1988, Paramount Pictures released the comedy “Coming to America”, starring Eddie Murphy (an African American actor) and Arsenio Hall. It was about a rich prince named Akeem, from a foreign country who comes to America to escape all the trappings of his wealth. In the movie there is a scene set in a barber’s shop when Prince Akeem goes to get a haircut and interacts with the barber and his customers. One of the customers is an old, white Jewish man named Saul, who is actually played by Eddie Murphy himself, in “whiteface”.
According to the director John Landis, it was his idea to have Eddie Murphy wear makeup to play a Jewish man as a sort of payback for Jewish comedians wearing blackface in the early 1900’s. Coming to America went on to gross US$128 million in the United States.
16 years later, in 2004, Columbia Pictures released the comedy “White Chicks”. The plot amounted to two black male police officers having to go undercover as two white, blonde females. It was extremely far-fetched, but was advertised as comedy. The officers, played by African American actor brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, underwent a transformation and basically played in “whiteface” for a good portion of the movie. Again it was all done in the name of humor and the movie went on to gross US$113 million worldwide. Obviously this whole movie could not have existed without black people made up to play white people, but does that make it okay?
White actors playing historically black characters (no black face)
In 2007, THINKFilm Image Entertainament released the movie “Stuck” starring Mena Suvari (a white actress) in the role of Brandi Boski. In the movie Boski is involved in a collision with a pedestrian who ends up lodged or “stuck” in the windshield of her car. The movie is based on a true story involving Chante Jawan Mallard (a black woman) who struck and ultimately killed a white man with her vehicle. Hollywood decided that in retelling this true story they would alter the race scenario and make the killer white like the victim. That being said, Suvari had her hair styled in “cornrows” in the movie (a style common to black women) and the friends she involves are all black too, as a possible attempt to “black-up” her character a bit without overdoing it. As a result, some black bloggers were quoted as saying that “yet another Black role goes to a White woman.” Interesting stuff, but why not just tell the real story and cast a black actress instead?
There are other examples of black actors playing traditional white characters such as the black actor David Oyelowo playing a historically white King Henry VI on stage in the Shakespeare play, but the question remains, why cast an actor that does not represent the role as it was originally intended?
Hollywood (and other media outlets) has adopted the trend of “racebending”. Basically that means that media creators have changed the race or ethnicity of a character to make the movie more marketable or appeal to a certain demographic, race or group. It has been done in Hollywood for many years, mostly in the past to discriminate against people of colour. However, there is a new trend to discriminate positively (as in Thor) and cast black actors in white roles too.
Black actors playing historically white characters (no white face)
2011 saw the much-awaited release of the movie "Thor" by Paramount Pictures. Comic book heroes were now appearing in motion pictures in rapid succession. One of the characters in the Thor story is the gatekeeper Heimdall based on the god Heimdallr in Norse mythology. Up until the release of the movie Thor, Heimdall had been depicted in Marvel comics and in TV cartoons as a white male with a definite Nordic appearance (you know, the typical blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes). However, in the movie, Idris Elba, an African American actor, plays him. When asked by the UK’s TV Times about the role, he had this to say:
"There has been a big debate about it: can a black man play a Nordic character?" he told TV Times. "Hang about, Thor's mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That's OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong? "I was cast in Thor and I'm cast as a Nordic god," he said. "If you know anything about the Nords, they don't look like me but there you go. I think that's a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that's good."
Now you have to understand that the Thor movie only added to Elba's net worth of $12million, so he may be a little biased with his comments.
What about non-actors, or just plain old me?
So, back to my reason for writing this in the first place. I am still not sure whether my “blackface” disguise was right or wrong, harmless or hurtful. I know what my motives were at the time, and yet I, being white, am only able to see if from a white person’s perspective. I am able to honestly say that if a black person were to white out his face in similar circumstances I would not be offended at all. I do understand thought that my thought process does not come out of a heritage of discrimination either. As for myself, I do try to see the heart of a man rather than his outward appearance and act and react to him according to that and not exterior prejudices.
As cultural and ethnic diversity continues to grow, and media control reflects this, it will be interesting to see who plays whom in years to come. Next up – a black James Bond… you heard it here first!