Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is Brown the Same Old Black?

Ben Stiller’s comedy Tropic Thunder isn’t due in theaters until mid-August, but already it’s generating some lightning bolts of controversy. In the movie, Robert Downey Jr. plays an Oscar-winning actor named Kirk Lazarus who accepts a role in a Vietnam War film that’s written for a black character. Lazarus, who like Downey is white, decides to play the character as written, and so he wears makeup to appear African-American – which obviously means that Downey wears makeup, too.

White folks playing black folks is risky business. Tropic Thunder is going for laughs – and technically it’s Downey’s character who reveals his ethics, not Downey – but that doesn’t mean some people won’t be offended. Production stills of Tropic Thunder featuring Downey in brown makeup have been circulating for weeks now (see the trailer here) and entertainment news outlets are jumping on the pre-story, in large part because it arrives amidst a similar storm of controversy surrounding the casting of Fred Armisen (of white and Asian heritage) as the go-to Barack Obama impersonator on Saturday Night Live.

Are these representations offensive, insensitive or taboo? Is brownface, however respectfully applied, simply the new blackface? Or, have we reached a place of racial comfort where an actor of one race can wear makeup to approximate the skin tones of another without it recalling painful and embarrassing images of this country’s horrific burnt-cork past?

Last Sunday, the Arts section of the Washington Post dedicated a two-page spread to a less than 1,400-word article by Neely Tucker called “Hollywood’s About-Face on Blackface,” which is subtitled: “Is the broken taboo a step forward or a step back?” It’s a question that the article hardly attempts to answer. Instead, Tucker briefly and patchily outlines the history of blackface in cinema while wandering into other topics like the adoption of “black culture” by white entertainers, as if they’re one and the same. They aren’t. True, pointing out Quentin Tarantino’s lack of shame over using the word “nigger” as a slang form of “brother” provides an example of eroding taboos (or at least a decline in the furor they inspire), but to lump into the conversation Justin Timberlake’s method of “performing in black styles” is to suggest that “black styles” are as genetically inspired as black skin. And that’s not only incorrect, it’s also off-topic.

That said, I have no interest in trashing Tucker’s feature. That the article doesn’t provide clear-cut solutions to the brownface debate isn’t the least bit shocking. Yes, I’m peeved that – Arts section or not – the Post dedicated two pages to an article that only gums at the issues instead of sinking some fangs to the bone, but the only thing that surprised me about Tucker’s article was to finish the piece and realize that my own opinions on this issue are about as rigid as a jellyfish. I’d like to think that I rarely profess to know the answers to such cultural quagmires, but I usually have an opinion about what I think the answers are. In this case though, I see black and white and brown and heck of a lot of gray.

So let’s look at a few recent cases of light-skinner actors playing darker-skinned characters and see where that leads us:

Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart:

There are several ways to defend this portrayal. First and foremost, Pearl endorsed the casting. If it’s fine by her, it should probably be fine by us. Second, Jolie’s portrayal taps into Pearl’s emotions rather than her subject’s Afro-Cuban/Dutch heritage. The darker skin tone and the wig of tight, black curls do make the actress more closely resemble the real-life woman she’s playing, but Jolie’s performance is in no way reliant upon those physical approximations. Third (and this one is tricky), Jolie still looks very much like Jolie, but with a wig. She’s clearly wearing a coat of paint, yes, but we’ve all seen Caucasian women darken themselves to that degree at the tanning salon. That Jolie’s physical approximation of Pearl didn’t require an enormous transformation makes the casting seem like a small, logical step rather than an inexplicable leap. Fourth, if Jolie isn’t naturally dark-skinned enough, or ethnic enough, or black enough for this role (however someone wants to put it), then how far must producers go in order to remain respectful of Pearl’s family tree? Would they be required to find an actress of Afro-Cuban/Dutch roots? Is it possible that an African-American actress could have been cast who would have been too dark-skinned for the part? And if a black actress wore makeup to lighten her skin color, would that be any less offensive?

On the other side: (1) Just because Pearl endorsed Jolie’s casting doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have endorsed another actress. (2) Just because Jolie’s portrayal is respectful (not to mention impressive) doesn’t mean that she’s the only actress who could have played Pearl or even the best actress for the job. (3) Just because a tan Jolie might come close to resembling Pearl’s skin color without the application of makeup doesn’t mean that adding a layer of race-based paint shouldn’t send up caution flags; the “close enough” argument puts us in danger of ruling that the previously commonplace practice of having whites play American Indians wasn’t quite so misguided after all. (4) Just because finding an actress to match Pearl’s exact racial heritage might have meant going overboard doesn’t mean that getting closer to the truth would have been a foolish effort.

On top of all that, here’s something to ponder: What if Daniel Pearl had been black instead of white? In A Mighty Heart, Mariane shares scant screen time with her husband, but would producers have dared to darken Jolie’s skin color in order to put her on the arm of, say, Samuel L Jackson? It’s hard to imagine that. In the minds of producers (and then moviegoers) did Daniel Pearl accentuate Mariane’s whiteness, both physically and culturally, and make Jolie’s casting permissible?

Fred Armisen as Barack Obama on SNL:

Similar to above, here we have a case where an actor’s (comic) portrayal is modeled on a subject’s mannerisms, speech patterns, expressions and personality. Arguably, Armisen’s impression (as well as the skits built around it) would work nearly as well if Armisen went without makeup, just like Frank Caliendo’s impersonation of Charles Barkley is as hilarious without makeup as with it, just like Caliendo’s impersonation of John Madden is as spot-on without makeup as with it. In cases like these the makeup provides punctuation for the sentence; it doesn’t comprise the message itself.

Also, when Armisen impersonates Obama the joke isn’t that Obama is black or that a white guy is playing a black guy (so far, at least). Instead it’s about spoofing Obama’s identity as a public figure, something SNL has done to politicians and other celebrities for decades. If Armisen can deliver the cast’s best Obama impersonation, why shouldn’t he be able to perform it? And if he performs it, why shouldn’t the makeup department complete the effect by outfitting his skin appropriately? So long as SNL is willing to let black actors don makeup to play white characters the program is playing fair.

Besides, Armisen’s impersonation has made headlines only because of the heightened media attention brought on by national election coverage. There’s no uproar when Armisen portrays Prince, or Darrell Hammond plays Jesse Jackson or Maya Rudolph plays Liza Minnelli one day and Oprah Winfrey the next. Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. impression (which utilized brownface) is one of SNL’s most famous and, so far as I know, most beloved characters. In all these cases, race isn’t at the core of the comic portrayals. But having a white guy play a black guy who might very well be the next president becomes a big deal when the media has already speculated whether that black man is “black enough” to draw the overwhelming support of African-Americans.

Still, here’s something to ponder: Since Armisen isn’t black, does that take jokes about black stereotypes off the table? Having a white guy play a black guy in a skit about the media’s kid-gloves treatment of Obama is one thing. Having a white guy play a black guy in a skit about the inaugural ball being catered by Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits would be something else. But stereotypes frequently make for comedy fodder.

Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder:

It’s too soon to make a ruling on this one. I presume that Tropic Thunder will make some sort of editorial comment on society or Hollywood (or both), but until it speaks in full it would be wrong to dismiss or embrace Downey’s “blackface” until we see it within the context of the film.

Who knows, maybe Tropic Thunder holds the answers to all these questions. But until then, where does that leave me?

Where does that leave this debate?

I look at the cases above and see nothing – absolutely nothing – in the casting of Jolie, Armisen and Downey that in any way resembles our most vulgar definition of blackface, as seen in Al Jolsen’s portrayal within 1927’s The Jazz Singer. But while I acknowledge that we live in a country that is often overly obsessed with political correctness, I’m uncomfortable dismissing the linking of these two extremes as a case of media space-filling. The practice of using public acceptance as a measuring stick of racial sensitivity has a habit of inflicting extreme damage before public opinion swings the other way. Even if the majority of black America is comfortable with Armisen’s portrayal, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just.

Is there a difference between blackface and brownface? If there is, determining one from the other would seem to come down to intent: a performance that aims to injure, defame or otherwise offend is unacceptable blackface, while a respectful performance (and with comedy this gets tricky) is tolerable(?) brownface. But it’s still not that simple. Watching Mickey Rooney’s ghastly Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a case-closed example of modified blackface that should not and would not be tolerated today. But what of the portrayal of Prince Feisal by Alec Guinness in Lawrence Of Arabia? That performance is dignified, respectful and honorable, but a white actor shouldn’t and wouldn’t get that role if the movie were made today. And that realization brings us back to Jolie as Pearl and back to where we started.

It’s tempting in a time like this to fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of hard-core pornography and say that when it comes to identifying odious blackface performance slurs from publicly accepted brownface costuming we know it when we see it. But I wonder, do we?

The Cooler encourages your thoughts and debate on this subject.


Fox said...

I like to think we've reached a point where actors of one race portraying actors of another race isn't an issue.

The blackface of Jolson was obviously offensive, and a cruel reminder of black Americans being shut out of Hollywood. But, as you pointed out, most of today's cross-racial portrayals are based on mannerism more than skin-tone.

I'm very curious to see *Tropical Thunder* to see how Stiller and Downey Jr. handle the role/character. It could be really great, or, it could be offensive. I trust that Ben Stiller has the tact not to do the wrong thing, but we'll see.

However, I can't see a white actor/actress ever portraying a black character in a DRAMATIC role. As you pointed out with Jolie as Pearl, I think that portrayal floats - and this may sound silly, but I think it's true - because her shift in skin tone isn't so drastic, AND, b/c Mariane Pearl's heritage, as I understand it, is of many mixed races.

In comedy, I think the portrayals work b/c there is a light air to what is up on screen. Not in a mocking way, but in a seriousness-of-the-situation way.

Mark said...

See Undercover Black Man's take on the "Tropic Thunder" preview, and the ensuing discussion.


Ghibli said...

Thanks for this post and the comments made by Fox. Mark, appreciate the link.

I have many thoughts on this, including those fermenting now after Obama's speech on race yesterday.

One of my earliest movie memories during my "Fred Astaire" phase comes from the movie "Swing Time." My family loved it for the dance moves. However, there is one routine where Astaire does a big tap routine called Mr. Bojangles in blackface. It has been described as Astaire's “tribute" to the real Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a great hoofer who clicked and clacked his heels to Vaudevillian, Broadway and early film fame. For a guy born in the late 1870's, he ended up being known as a wonderful dancer, not just a "black" dancer and as someone who brokered the black and white entertainment worlds. Were his shows perhaps a "stereotype" of himself, maybe, I don't know. Wish I had been born a century earlier to tell you. When he starred opposite the child actor Shirley Temple in many movies I shared with my Nana, was that degrading or helpful for race relations? I still don't know.

His own nickname "Mr. Bojangles" was probably met with completely different intentions. To whites, this meant a happy guy, perhaps whimsical, but to blacks, it meant someone who kicked up dust, a "squabbler."

I really wonder how he would feel about being paid what was an intended homage by Fred Astaire in the 1936 “Swing Time” I remember so fondly. And this so many years before the explosion of race rights and riots in this country. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that this dance number resonates in my mind for its use of live fireworks and a song about freedom and independence.

Mark said...

Great post and comments.

Thank you, ghibli, for reminding me of the Astaire "tribute," which I'd forgotten about but which struck me the same way when I first saw it years ago. That blackface routine seems so obviously offensive now -- and it probably did to a lot of people at the time -- but I think I ended up giving Astaire a pass on this one because I know he idolized Robinson; I don't think he meant to offend or mock or even play it for laughs; it was just a bad choice.

I was more offended by the casting of Alec Guinness in "Lawrence of Arabia" (glad you included that one, Jason). To me the whole dramatic point of the Feisal character was to show the danger and arrogance of underestimating the Arabs, of discounting them as primitives. It took some big stones, I thought, to cast one of the great English actors as the guy to deliver that lecture to another Brit.

I didn't see "A Mighty Heart," but I remember scratching my head when I saw that Angelina Jolie got the part. All the good points made here notwithstanding, were there really no lesser known but ethnically more accurate actors available for this role? The obvious answer was that Jolie would sell tickets for a movie not likely to grab a huge audience (with or without her). She doesn't do much for me anyway, but I get it. It's the movie business.I just don't think that excuses passing over worthy minority talent.

And there's plenty out there. All you need to do is watch "The Wire" to see there's vast talent pool of black actors who are mostly going unused.

So what does all this mean for "Tropic Thunder"? Even over at Undercover Black Man, the readers seems unsure, almost trying to will themselves to work up some outrage. But a lot of people there said they thought the clip looked funny and they might see the movie despite their better intentions. (I thought the same thing.)

Maybe the justification on that one will be that not only is Thunder a comedy, but it's a meta-comedy about this very topic.

I don't know, the proof will lie in the execution. Which we'll have to see in order to judge.