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The fact that he chose to use real Black people in the background, but white actors in the lead roles highlights the idea that Blacks were still supposed to be subservient to whites; even lead characters who were supposed to be Black were portrayed by whites. However, it also points to one of the reasons that whites chose to employ blackface: the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. While many minstrel shows focused on less frightening aspects of Black stereotypes, the Birth of a Nation focused on a fear that people would use to drive anti-Black sentiment in the period following Reconstruction: the image of the Black male as dangerous rapist. Although many people protested the racist elements of the movie, it became an instant success, and remains a controversial but constant member of most critics' best film lists.
Blackface persisted as a staple in American entertainment throughout the early part of the 20th century. While minstrel troops themselves, declined, blackface became part of the other emerging forms of American entertainment: movies and television. The most famous movie actor to work in blackface was Al Jolson. "If blackface has its shameful poster boy, it is Al Jolson. Many other 20th-century performers -- from Shirley Temple to Bing Crosby -- donned the makeup for various roles, but Jolson adopted it as a core part of his public persona" (Gioia). Jolson was one of the most successful performers of his time period and the movies in which he performed in blackface were successful.
Gradually the demand for blackface subsided, but the demand for minstrel shows that promoted negative stereotypes about African-Americans did not. One of the most successful of all early television programs, Amos 'n Andy, is an example of a production that, while performed by Black actors who were not wearing blackface makeup, continued the tradition of reinforcing negative stereotypes about the Black community. However, just as earlier minstrel shows had provided African-American entertainers with some of their first mainstream entertainment opportunities, it cannot be ignored that Amos 'n Andy was also a cultural ground-breaker for African-Americans. "It was the first television series with an all-black cast (the only one of its kind to appear on prime-time, network television for nearly another twenty years)" (Deane). Although it was eventually removed from the airways because of its offensiveness sand did not feature any characters actually in blackface, the TV show helped signal the beginning of a transformation in the way that blackface would be used in popular culture.
Americans were growing intolerant of blatant racial stereotyping, and blackface began to become increasingly less acceptable. That does not mean that blackface died in the 1950s. On the contrary, "amateur minstrel shows continued to be performed in the 1960s and high schools, fraternities and local theater groups would usually perform the shows in blackface" (Padgett). While the practice of blackface has largely disappeared in mainstream society, it is interesting to note that minstrel shows remain as themes for amateur theater productions (Padgett).
As blackface began to fade as a method of entertainment, it began to gain some legitimacy as a means of socio-cultural exploration. During the Civil Rights movement, journalist John Griffin dressed up as a black man in order to fully understand the experiences of a black man in the South. This true-story is detailed in the 1964 movie Black Like Me. Although the movie's main character, John, does not employ traditional blackface makeup, but relies on some type of skin-darkening treatment, he is still a white man acting like an African-American man. Moreover, even though John is not attempting to provide entertainment or reinforce stereotypes, he quickly discovers that his safety and well-beings as a man who appears African-American are largely based on him complying with existing racial stereotypes. The film reveals the extent and everyday prevalence of racism during that time period, which helps highlight the need for legal and cultural racial changes (Lerner).
In rapid succession, race-based laws, if not attitudes, changed in the United States, and the country was left trying to determine how to incorporate changing racial norms and rules into existing social institutions. Not surprisingly, popular culture began to toy with the idea of blackface as overt political commentary in the early 1970s. The 1970 movie Watermelon Man featured a spin on traditional blackface storytelling, because the main character was a portrayed by an African-American actor who, for some parts of the movie, was in white makeup to portray the racist white man Jeff Gerber. Gerber wakes up one day to discover that he has turned black. While a black actor portrays both the white and black Gerber, the idea makeup is being used to portray race is a central driving point of the story. The racist Gerber must come to terms with being a black man, just like the people against whom he previously discriminated (Van Peebles). However, the mainstream use of blackface was considered taboo by most people, who saw it as an insensitive way of reinforcing racial stereotypes. Blackface might appear in movies or other forms of entertainment, such as 1983's Trading Places, but when it did appear, it was generally used to highlight racism rather than evoke racist thoughts and stereotypes (Landis).
By 1986, Hollywood seemed to think that using blackface as a way of satirizing black culture was once-again culturally acceptable. In the movie Soul Man, a white college student Mark, pretends to be African-American in order to get a scholarship to go to Harvard. Mark is the epitome of the spoiled white male, and he chooses to pretend to be African-American because of the availability of scholarships limited to African-Americans (Miner). Although this film does not play into traditional African-American stereotypes, it does reinforce the stereotypes that began to emerge in a post-Civil Rights Era America. One of those fears was that affirmative action was resulting in African-Americans receiving privileges that whites were unable to receive. Thus, the new blackface portrayal did not invoke ancient black stereotypes, but, instead relied upon new stereotypes.
In 1993, actor Ted Danson was widely lambasted for his use of blackface at a Friar's Club roast of his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg had frequently employed racial themes in her own stand-up routines and the fact that he was a white man and she was a black woman had been an issue for them in a press. Therefore, for Danson to use race as a theme in his roast was not unexpected. However, he appeared in blackface with emphasized white lips and told a number of racially-themed jokes. His appearance was deemed offensive by some of the guests present, but defended by other guests including Goldberg, who helped him plan his material, and the African-American model Beverly Johnson. However, the backlash against his appearance led to a public relations debacle, with Danson largely being vilified in the press as racist. Furthermore, the Friar's Club issuing an apologizing for the racially offensive tone of his appearance at the roast (Inquirer Wire Services). Following Danson's appearance at the Friar Club's roast, there were reported isolated incidents of individuals or groups appearing in blackface at a variety of different events, each of which was met with disapproval by the public. Even the intentional use of blackface in a satirical manner was considered inappropriate, and it seemed as if the 1990s may finally have seen the end of blackface as a legitimate form of artistic expression.
However, in 2001, Spike Lee, a director known for his racially insightful films, decided to tackle the issue of blackface in a full-length feature-film, Bamboozled. The plot of the film revolves around an African-American writer who works for a major television network. He pitches a show that focuses on a successful African-American family, but the network rejects that idea (Lee). The writer, in an effort to get fired, then pitches a traditional minstrel show to the network. However, instead of featuring white actors in blackface, the television program will focus on black actors in blackface, which was, at times, an element of traditional minstrel shows. The television program, which emphasizes black stereotypes, becomes a tremendous success. The point that Lee tries to convey in his show is that society continues to make money off of the stereotyping of African-Americans. However, the film was subject to significant critiques when it was released, largely because many audiences felt that Lee's use of satire was incomplete, so that he was perpetuating the very stereotypes that he was trying to challenge. The film was not considered one of Lee's best and it appeared that even a director like Spike Lee, who had established his reputation as a director by tackling challenging race-based themes, could not legitimately employ blackface as a plot device in modern art.
However, the first decade of the 21st century has seen a resurgent interest in blackface. It has been featured in films such as Tropic Thunder, and in 2009 two Northwestern University students dressed in blackface for a holiday party. Both of these events were critiqued…[continue]
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