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Social Justice Black Lives Matter Opinion Piece Racism

Contextualising the Use of Blackface in Television and Film

Censorship can often lead to an idealised perspective of the world around us, creating a utopia in the world of entertainment that serves as a dangerous method of escapism. Black- and brown-face needs policing, but banning isn’t the way forward. Life imitates art, and life just isn’t a perfect racism-free environment.

Often, offensive behaviour is outlawed due to censorship laws to prevent pervasive hateful actions, but when does it reach a point of censoring history? In portraying hateful actions on either the small or big screen, do we perpetuate the ideologies, or simply keep ourselves mindful of the truth of not only the past, but our present? Censorship can often lead to an idealised perspective of the world around us, creating a utopia in the world of entertainment that serves as a dangerous method of escapism. Black- and brown-face needs policing, but banning isn’t the way forward. Life imitates art, and life just isn’t a perfect racism-free environment.

Growing up as a second-generation immigrant in the UK and having dark skin hasn’t always been easy. I often felt alienated and seeing television shows like Little Britain and Come Fly With Me, and their egregious use of black- and brown-face, exacerbated this feeling. The alienation didn’t end there: films that my white peers praised continued pushing me further outside…whether it was the yellow-face in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the brown-face in West Side Story. I was a stranger in my own country.

Historically, black- and brown- face have been used in Hollywood and beyond to erase actors of colour and reduce ethnic minorities to caricatures in productions like ‘minstrel shows’. Minstrel shows, popular in the USA in the 19th Century, depicted black people as dim-witted, lazy, superstitious and simple-minded, and said characters were played by white actors donning blackface. Since the 19th Century, blackface has fallen out of practice, but resurfaces in modern film and television, but where do we create boundaries?

Minstrel Show Blackface
A poster for a minstrel show, depicting the white actors and their black characters.

Two very different but culturally relevant examples of blackface in modern-day television and film are David Walliams’ and Matt Lucas’ Little Britain, and Tropic Thunder. Walliams and Lucas wore black- and brown-face multiple times across the whole period that Little Britain was on the air, playing black and brown characters in their signature two-person sketches. Robert Downey Jr wore blackface in 2008 film Tropic Thunder, but here is the distinction between the two cases I have presented: intent.

Downey Jr’s character was an actor who wore blackface for the film he was in, which reflects an unfortunate reality of black and brown erasure in the film industry. Little Britain differs to Tropic Thunder in the way that Walliams and Lucas attempted to embody the races of the characters they created, there was no acknowledgement of the blackface – they intended to really and truly be those races. Tropic Thunder’s use of blackface is acceptable as it was clear within the film’s narrative that it was blackface – it contributed to the story; Little Britain had no such social awareness or commentary in regards to the blackface. Walliams and Lucas simply wished to create caricatures of these ethnic minorities for the purpose of so-called dark humour.

A comparable example is the n-word and how it’s used – it’s used in film and television to reflect the reality of racial abuse. There must be a separation from the actor who says it and their character, as all they are guilty of is embodying an uncomfortable reality. Take Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: Samuel L Jackson’s character is called the n-word when receiving racial abuse – to ban the use of the word in television and film completely stands to erase this part of our real world, and creates a sheltered perspective for viewers, who often learn to consider other world views through experiencing fiction. The Nazi flag is banned and is recognised as a hate symbol, but a complete and comprehensive ban contributes to the erasure and sugar-coating of our society and history. This same need to reflect unfortunate truth is seen in whether a complete ban on blackface is feasible, and the answer is: it isn’t.


Written by Sammy Yasmin