Anthony Hopkins’ rendition of Othello, recorded by the BBC in 1981, is exquisite, one of the finest examples of Shakespearean acting one can see on film. Today, it’s commonplace for black actors to play parts that Shakespeare originally wrote for whites. Denzel Washington did an excellent job playing Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (1993). If we can accept this kind of ethnic substitution, why are we so distressed when the substitution goes the other way around? Might not the true measure of theatrical equality be when any actor, of any race, can play any part?
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Is there anything more shocking to our modern sensibilities than blackface? If you put aside felonies like child molestation and murder, it’s hard to think of much. And yet in the past couple of years, blackface incidents have seemed to proliferate. First, there was Megyn Kelly. In the fall of 2018, her NBC talk show was canceled after she waxed nostalgic about the days of her youth, when children could still blacken their skin for Halloween, just so long as they were dressing up “as a character.”1 Then, four months later, Virginia governor Ralph Northam found himself embroiled in a similar contretemps when pictures from his medical school yearbook surfaced in which he appears wearing either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam now denies that he was in the picture at all, but the fact that he retained his job was also partially due to blackface. While the first man in the line of succession was swept up in a sexual assault scandal, the second, Attorney General Mark Herring, was forced to admit that he, too, had worn blackface in college – in his case, in an attempt to imitate the rapper Kurtis Blow. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There have been additional blackface scandals involving the governor of Alabama, the lieutenant governor of Mississippi, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who, it would appear, could barely attend a party in his early life without smearing his face with shoe polish.
Such incidents have pushed blackface back into the spotlight, forcing us to reconsider the nature of the transgression. Is it always wrong or is it only wrong when worn by non-blacks? Should we, as Megyn Kelly suggested, make a distinction between blackface that’s imitative and blackface that’s deliberately insulting? And what of white politicians and performers who, in decades past, chose to darken their skin? In an interview in August, comedian Sarah Silverman revealed that she was fired from a recent movie when the producers happened upon a blackface sketch she did in 2007.2 In the sketch, Silverman applies black makeup to her face to determine whether Jews (Silverman is Jewish) or African Americans face more discrimination. Of course, her experiment goes awry. Rather than attacking her as an African American, passersby attack her as a bigot, taking her choice of makeup as a sign that she wants to mock black people. The message of the bit was hardly pro-blackface, but the producers apparently felt that whatever Silverman’s intentions, she’d crossed a line simply by tinting her skin. Did they make the right call, and if so should others in the industry follow suit? Why does such a seemingly trivial act – the use of a little black or brown face paint – cause so much anguish?
Because of minstrelsy, the spirit of which haunts all forms of racial drag, even when no offense is intended. Historians generally date the birth of minstrelsy to a performance by white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice in New York’s Bowery Theater in 1832. Wearing a tattered, threadbare suit, his face darkened with a paste made from burnt cork and water, Rice appeared onstage dressed as a black man he claimed to have seen while on tour in Louisville, Kentucky. Though old and lame, Rice explained, the man had a fondness for dancing – dancing that Rice proceeded to emulate, while singing a ditty he called “Jump Jim Crow” in slave dialect.3
The Bowery crowd loved it, and soon so did the rest of the country. For roughly the next sixty years, until the rise of vaudeville, minstrelsy, as it came to be known, was America’s most popular form of entertainment. Abraham Lincoln was a fan, as were Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Shows were a medley of song, dance, and drama, usually played out in an idealized Southern setting, full of slow-witted, happy-go-lucky blacks (played, of course, by whites) stumbling in and out of trouble. The characters came in stock types: the selfless “Tom,” the ignorant “coon,” and the jolly, big-bellied “mammy,” among others.4
And yet, strange as it may seem, a large amount of minstrelsy’s appeal was non-racial. The minstrel stage was one of the few places in which 19th-century men could publicly express their emotions, particularly their softer, amorous emotions. Tearful ballads were as common as slapstick comedy. Indeed, the tears were a big selling point. “Everyone knew that there were those who came to a minstrel show to cry as well as to laugh,” the songwriter W. C. Handy recalled, years later. “Ladies of that mauve decade [the 1890s] were likely to follow the plot of a song with much the same sentimental interest that their daughters show in the development of a movie theme nowadays. The tenors were required to tell the stories that jerked the tears.”5
Blackface didn’t just give men a license to cry; it also gave them a license to clown. “The appeal of the white minstrel show was that it was an excuse to drop all inhibitions, have a good time, and be liberated from the conventions of everyday life,” Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen explain in their history of minstrelsy, Darkest America. “White men put on black masks and became another self, one which was loose of limb, innocent of obligation to anything outside itself, indifferent to success (for whom success was impossible by racial definition), and thus a creature totally devoid of tension and deep anxiety.”6 This, no doubt, is one reason why blacks, as well as whites, were drawn to minstrelsy in the decades after the Civil War. All-black troupes included McCabe & Young’s Minstrels, Haverly’s Genuine Colored Minstrels, and Richards & Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels, the last of which attracted spectators, both black and white, by the thousand.7
What drew African Americans to minstrelsy? Why were they so eager to appear in shows that belittled members of their own race? Necessity, for one thing. Professional opportunities for African Americans in the Jim Crow era were both limited and low paying. For the performers, there was the allure of the limelight, the natural desire to show off their talents before a crowd of their fellows, and for black audience members there was the thrill of being able to cheer members of their own race on the public stage. Yet we shouldn’t discount the attraction of the blackface mask itself, which provided blacks with the same disinhibiting disguise that it provided whites. Bert Williams, the most famous African American actor of the early 20th century, recalled how blackface helped him come into his own as an actor after struggling to find his comedic voice, early in his career. Then one day in 1895 or ’96, “just for a lark,” he smeared on some blackface in a Detroit theater: “Nobody was more surprised than I was when it went like a house on fire. Then I began to find myself. It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed.”8
One of the challenges of the contemporary blackface debate is that the word itself, blackface, is a suitcase term into which we stuff an assortment of very different people and performances – everyone from Thomas Dartmouth Rice to Bert Williams; from Walter Long trying to ravish a white maiden in The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Fred Armisen playing President Obama on Saturday Night Live in 2008. And then there’s Othello, Shakespeare’s Moorish hero, for centuries played by white men in black makeup. The exact nature of Othello’s ethnicity has been debated for centuries. Iago’s and Roderigo’s gibes about his “black” skin and “thick-lips” suggest that Shakespeare intended him to appear stereotypically African – that is to say, a man of sub-Saharan origins.9 Some scholars, though, contend that Elizabethans used the term “Moor” to speak of both blacks and Arabs.10
Part of the difficulty, of course, is trying to map our own modern ethnic sensibilities onto a world that made racial distinctions very differently than we do today. Racist was not a word in Shakespeare’s vocabulary.11 Yet insofar as the term can be applied to the characters in the play, it applies to the villains of the story, Iago, Roderigo, and Desdemona’s father. A strong case can be made that Othello is an anti-racist play. His jealousy aside, Othello is a man of admirable character – brave, eloquent, honest; blessed with both martial gifts and social graces – which is precisely what has bothered many readers over the years. “It would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro,” wrote the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, scoffing at the notion that Shakespeare really meant Othello to be black. “It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.”12
Now that black actors are allowed to play the role, it only makes sense that they do so, both for the sake of the actors, who deserve every opportunity that their white fellows have had for centuries, and for the sake of the play itself, which can benefit from their talent. That said, can we truly condemn all the great Othellos who were, in ages past, played by whites? This, after all, was how the author meant the part to be played. Anthony Hopkins’ rendition of the character, recorded by the BBC in 1981, is exquisite, one of the finest examples of Shakespearean acting one can see on film. Today, it’s commonplace for black actors to play parts that Shakespeare originally wrote for whites. Denzel Washington did an excellent job playing Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (1993). If we can accept this kind of ethnic substitution, why are we so distressed when the substitution goes the other way around? Might not the true measure of theatrical equality be when any actor, of any race, can play any part?
Even some of Othello’s critics have defended its use of racial drag. Shakespeare scholar Virginia Vaughan maintains that Othello should only be played by whites in blackface, not because they’re better in the role but as a reminder of the play’s provenance, in a time ridden with racial prejudice. “[Othello] should not be played by a black actor at all,” she contends, “[because] Shakespeare’s tragedy is not about Africanness but the white man’s idea of Africanness.”13 Even if you disagree with Vaughan’s ideas about theatrical casting, she brings up an interesting point: Is blackface wrong if it’s used to spotlight racism? What if the wearer’s purpose is to draw attention to blackface itself?
Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled means to address this very point, imagining a world in which, thanks to the efforts of a naïve black television producer, a modern-day minstrel show becomes the most popular program on television. Artistically, the film is a mess – a satire that doesn’t quite know what it’s satirizing, chastising past filmmakers for trading in racial stereotypes while caricaturing its own black characters – but its messaging on blackface is crystal clear: it’s vociferously opposed to the practice, despite the fact that many of the characters, both black and white, are shown wearing it in the movie. No one walks away from the film admiring Michael Rapaport’s boorish, blackface-wearing TV exec. He’s utterly detestable, as is the film’s putative protagonist, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an unreconstructed Uncle Tom so out of touch with his own ethnicity that he refers to African Americans as “negroes,” as though his brain is stuck in the Amos ‘n’ Andy era.
Needless to say, subtlety is not the movie’s strong point, which is maybe why it has gained such a following in academia, extolled by socially conscious critics who ordinarily wouldn’t dare praise a film containing blackface. In her recent book Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Blackface in American Culture, Elizabeth L. Sanderson calls the film a “masterpiece,” comparing it to works by W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison.14 Would Sanderson, one wonders, apply the same logic to Sarah Silverman’s blackface sketch from 2007? If not, why not? Silverman uses the same tool (blackface), in the same manner (satire), for the same purpose that Lee does – not to laugh at blacks as fools but, instead, to laugh at anyone foolish enough to don blackface in ignorance. You don’t have to think Silverman’s bit was funny to recognize that it doesn’t deserve the same scorn as The Birth of a Nation.
For that matter, neither does Fred Astaire’s blackface number in Swing Time (1936), Bing Crosby’s in Holiday Inn (1942), nor Al Jolson’s in The Jazz Singer (1927), the last of which is, to this day, probably the most famous blackface performance of all time. After the film’s enormous success, Jolson made a career of appearing in what were, effectively, cinematic minstrels, restaging old 19th-century blackface acts on film. The Jazz Singer itself, though, doesn’t fall into that category. The movie tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson), a cantor’s son who so yearns to be a Broadway star that he renounces his Jewish heritage, remaking himself as a hip, Gentile jazzman named Jack Robin. Naturally, Jakie eventually returns to his dying father’s bedside to make amends. Afterwards, he takes the stage, dazzling the Broadway audience with a blackfaced rendition of “My Mammy,” addressed to his long-suffering mother. What’s most touching about the film today is not the father-son/mother-son love story, which is pure melodrama, but Jakie’s ethnic dysphoria. He’s a man divided within himself, part Jewish Jakie, part Gentile Jack Robin, but not entirely comfortable as either – that is, until he submerges his own identity beneath a mask of black greasepaint.
The Birth of a Nation is a different matter entirely, a film of such blistering bigotry that, watching it today, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Except for a few loyal Uncle Toms, the black characters are shown to be barbarous brutes, as eager to ransack the corpse of the Confederacy as they are to despoil the chastity of white Southern womanhood. The heroes, naturally, are the Ku Klux Klan, gallantly riding to the rescue. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film is how good it is. It’s both epic and intimate, gripping and romantic, and years ahead of its time in its use of cinematic storytelling. Its racial politics, though, are hideous, calling to mind the foam-flecked vitriol later expressed in the propaganda films of Joseph Goebbels. However dismissive Swing Time, Holiday Inn, and The Jazz Singer may be of blacks, they don’t come anywhere near the viciousness of D. W. Griffith’s misbegotten masterpiece.
If the recent national discussion of blackface has had a fault, it is that it has often failed to make this distinction, treating all blackface incidents as though they are equally opprobrious. After the Northam and Herring stories broke in Virginia, Vox writer Jane Coaston pooh-poohed the notion that because Herring’s use of blackface, unlike Northam’s, had been emulative he should be treated any more leniently than the governor:
Blackface . . . [is] tremendously racist, every single time it’s done, by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, celebrities and comedians. Such a judgment does not require an examination of the inner workings of the human heart of the person wearing blackface. Such a judgment requires merely the willingness to look.15
The problem with this zero-tolerance stance against blackface is that it tries to separate intention from action. “The question of intent is an important one in many aspects of public life,” Coaston writes, “but not, I’d argue, on the subject of blackface, or racism in general.”16 The fact is, though, when it comes to moral matters, like racism, intentions are always important. What is racism, after all, but the intention – whether conscious or unconscious – to prejudge people based on the color of their skin? Some might protest that this definition fails to capture the totality of racial prejudice, foregrounding personal bias while ignoring structural racism. Yet structural racism – whether in schooling or housing or access to the ballot box – is also dependent on intent on the part of civil servants, policymakers, and the public at large. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be structural racism. It would be structural inequality, which isn’t the same thing. Life is full of inequalities – in health and wealth, strength and intelligence, in access to good schools and well-paying jobs – but it takes intent to make these inequalities racist.
Deciphering a person’s intentions is hard. It requires us to examine context, to make interpretations, and to venture guesses, often without coming to satisfactory conclusions, which is why we prefer to focus on deeds and their consequences. Yet, if we only look at a person’s deeds, we can end up forgetting what it is that makes them foul in the first place. The taboo against blackface exists not because there’s something axiomatically wrong with black and brown makeup but because racial ridicule is clearly cruel and should be called out as such. If we don’t examine the inner workings of the human heart, we’ll never get to the source of the problem.
This is why, when we look at incidents of blackface, we must be discerning, recognizing the difference between bigotry and gaucherie, between insult and emulation. “Blackface (even in imitation of a specific person) is indicative of a view of black people not as people but as ideas, or costumes,” Jane Coaston writes, in her piece on blackface.17 Yet there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with imitation or, for that matter, of costuming oneself in the lineaments of others. Indeed, we give awards to actors who put on weight or muscle or foreign accents to better inhabit the people they’re playing. We don’t insist that Eddie Redmayne genuinely suffer from ALS if he is to play Stephen Hawking nor deny Ben Kingsley the chance to play a Holocaust survivor simply because he’s not Jewish. We recognize that the makeup, clothes, and accents they affect are not put on in malice. One of the wonderful things about the performing arts is their ability to generate empathy, allowing both actors and audience members alike to walk, if only for a brief while, in another person’s shoes. That’s why Coleridge was so offended by the thought of a black-skinned Othello, chafing at the idea that he might have to sympathize with a “negro,” even if that negro was just a white man in black makeup. Only a very hard-hearted person would judge Bert Williams as harshly as Thomas Dartmouth Rice or treat Al Jolson with as much scorn as D. W. Griffith. The challenge for us today is to do the same with our own contemporaries, with the Silvermans and Lees, Northams and Herrings, judging them each in turn, based on their intentions and circumstances, and not make the mistake of tarring them all with the same brush.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. Bloomsbury, London: 2015.
Coaston, Jane. “Conservatives Can’t Agree if Blackface Is Always Racist.” Vox. February 8, 2019.
Evans, Robert C., Ed. Othello: A Critical Reader. Bloomsbury, London: 2015.
“Racist.” (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism
Sanderson, Elizabeth L. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Blackface in American Culture. McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina: 2019.
“Sean King, Colo. Springs 2nd-Grader Who Dressed as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Black Face Paint, Wants Apology from School.” Huffpost. May 21, 2012. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sean-king-colo-springs-2n_n_1533803?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAHAEXsP2xHk0Eh1IniwQblZRu_rJR6b-y3oR7EEpaa-FWod
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. Ed. Gerald Eades Bentley. Penguin, New York: 1970.
Simmons, Bill. “Sarah Silverman on ‘Funny’ in 2019, Cancel Culture, ‘Big Mouth,’ Death Threats, the 2020 Election, and ‘Big Little Lies.’” The Ringer. August 8, 2019. https://www.theringer.com/the-bill-simmons-podcast/2019/8/8/20798119/sarah-silverman-funny-2019-cancel-culture-big-mouth-death-threats-the-2020-election-big-little-lies
Strausbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Penguin, New York: 2006.
Taylor, Yuval and Jake Austen. Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop. Norton, New York: 2012.
TODAY. “Are These Halloween Costumes Too Controversial to Wear?” YouTube. October 23, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY1Hf2taOPY