Theatre Lover's Journal for Nov. 2000:
and Old Wounds
by John Kenrick
Spike Lee is a master at zeroing-in on dangerous issues and pushing people's
buttons something few film makers are willing to do these days. In his
new comedy Bamboozled, a black TV executive produces a racially stereotyped minstrel show.
Lee uses this story to illustrate how people can wind up contributing to their
own oppression. I applaud Lee's intentions, but I am disturbed by the
way many ill-informed commentators are approaching the subject of blackface performance.
Whatever they think of Lee's work, too many critics are letting their cultural
Dockstaders Minstrels in
full production - note the minstrel line in front.
Beginning in the 1830's, troupes of white entertainers performed songs and
skits in the supposed style of Negro slaves. Using burnt cork to blacken their
faces, they depicted blacks as either
country bumpkins or self-defeating city slickers. These "minstrel shows"
became one of America's most popular forms of entertainment. Black performers
became part of minstrelsy after the Civil War, using the same makeup to darken
their faces, and perpetuating the same degrading caricatures. (Of course, it is
doubtful that white producers gave them any choice.)
We are frequently reminded that former minstrel Al Jolson continued to use blackface
on stage and screen in the early 20th Century, but he was far from alone. Eddie Cantor
wore burnt cork, and Hollywood thought nothing of putting blackface on such white stars
as Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to name just a few. These stars were
not racists, and they had no idea how hateful their blackface performances would seem to us
decades later. Much as we may hate to admit it, 20th Century America was an amazingly
racist nation, with practices and attitudes frighteningly close to the apartheid
mentality of South Africa. It was not until the Civil Rights movement caught fire in the
1950's and 60's that performing in blackface fell into disrepute. Today, many old musical
films are televised minus their blackface numbers, and any performer appearing in blackface
risks a publicity firestorm. (Consider how Ted Danson was vilified for appearing in blackface
at a celebrity roast for then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg.)
There is no disputing that blackface was and is an embodiment of racism, and that it
could only thrive in a culture that took bigotry as a casual fact of life. It is right
for us to deplore the use of blackface and all it represented. However, I think it is painfully
naive and insufferably self-righteous to condemn well-intentioned entertainers
of a previous time for not meeting our contemporary standards of sensitivity.
Al Jolson and his black-face alter ego
Those who smeared burnt cork on their faces decades ago were not inherently evil.
Jolson openly refused to eat in restaurants that would not serve black performers. When
bigots protested Cantor offering his handkerchief to a perspiring Sammy Davis Jr.
on 1950's television, Cantor bluntly told them where they could stick their hatred.
Contemporary critics who personally attack these performers (as one particularly
nasty letter writer did in the NY Times on 11/05/2000) should make sure their halos
are well-polished bore spewing their inanities. How hatred-free are their souls?
How actively did they protest when Dr. Laura was given a talk show to promote
her anti-gay bigotry? How loudly did they complain about the racial
hypocrisy of the Republican national convention this past summer? Have they
personally responded to the bigotry openly espoused by the Boy Scouts and certain
leaders (both white and black) of various so-called religious organizations? One
wonders how "enlightened" these commentators and our society
will seem to those who look back on us a century from now.
Bamboozled serves a valuable purpose. We need to remember that blackface
entertainment existed, and to develop an honest understanding of what it indicated
about our society. We must keep that memory in a clear light just as we must
do with other historic embodiments of hatred. It is only in remembering that we can
hope to keep bigotry at least partially in check in our own time. But surely we
can deplore racism without blindly condemning performers of the past who had no way
of realizing what burnt cork would represent to generations unborn. Bigotry is
ugly and unacceptable but so is self-righteous ignorance.
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