America would like to think that it’s made a lot of progress in the last two centuries. The land of the free and the home of the brave has abolished slavery, promoted universal suffrage, won wars in search of a freer world and even elected an African American president. But one not so pleasant tradition has persisted throughout the years – minstrelsy. Even though America promises racial democracy, minstrelsy continues to thrive in new forms, creating a gray space in regards to the racism of modern-day blackface. Blackface minstrelsy began as shows intended to amuse white audiences. Performers would “black up” their appearance and attitude in their caricatures of slaves and other African Americans. While such blatant depictions are scarce in modern times, minstrelsy still prevails in subtle ways.
To explore neo-minstrelsy, we must first look at its roots. From there, we will look at modern-day depictions and what they mean in the grand scheme of racist (or satirical) portrayals. In doing so, Omi and Winant will serve as the definers of what constitutes racism. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia questions if a non-literal “blacking up” is as racist as actual blackface. Tropic Thunder depicts a “dude playing a dude disguised as another dude” who appropriates specific elements of African American culture to create his character. Bamboozled fits on a bit of a different level regarding blackface. While the other two programs discuss and depict blackface for comedic reasons in purposefully inaccurate ways, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled takes a more serious and satirical look at how minstrelsy can and has played out in the television and hip-hop era. It’s Always Sunny and Tropic Thunder question what is racist, but Bamboozled is explicit in its critique of modern-day minstrelsy. These elements show that while America acts as if it has left its racist ways behind, there are still areas of ambiguity and acceptance in which minstrelsy falls into place.
History of minstrelsy – past to present
Blackface minstrelsy has a long history in the United States. In Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Amiri Imamu Baraka discusses how minstrelsy has played out and evolved over the past two centuries, but also defines when it got its start. “White performers using blackface to do ‘imitations of Negro life’ appeared in America around 1800, usually in solo performances. By the 1840’s, however, blackface was the rage of the country, and there were minstrel shows from America traveling all over the world. It was at least thirty more years before there were groups of traveling entertainers who did not have to use burnt cork or greasepaint” (Baraka 83). Performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish in their portrayals of African Americans. Not only were their physical representations quite racially insensitive, but also, as Eric Lott points out, so were the caricatures that the actors played. “While it was organized around the quite explicit ‘borrowing’ of black cultural materials for white dissemination, a borrowing that ultimately depended on the material relations of slavery, the minstrel show obscured these relations by pretending that slavery was amusing, right, and natural” (Love and Theft 3). In this case, it was what they knew would make money, portraying the African American as an easy-going imbecile. After all, no one would have a good time seeing the negative aspects of black life in America. These portrayals ‘borrowed’ from black culture, but picked and chose which elements to use.
White fascination with blackness went beyond just the image of the imbecile. Greg Tate shows that this obsession with black life began on the slave auction block. “Capitalism’s original commodity fetish was the Africans auctioned here as slaves, whose reduction from subjects to abstracted objects has made them seem larger than life and less than human at the same time” (Tate 4). Similarly, in minstrelsy, audiences clamored to view a representation of blackness that through caricature, made African Americans seem larger than life, but at the same time, were negated to a level of extreme otherness that “proved” that they were lesser. Through this portrayal, whites could forgive themselves for their racism, since while enjoying “black” performers, they could laugh with “them,” while also believing themselves to be more human than the other. During the performances, white folks could for the moment become black – or at least their image of it. Blackness not only represented a racial other, but also represented a different kind of masculinity and swagger that was not present within whiteness. “To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon or gaite de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood” (White Like Me 479). So, not only did minstrel shows allow white people to escape from the realities of race relations and explore the racial other, it also let them, for the moment explore their own blackness.
Even after the abolition of slavery, white obsession with blackness continued and found a new stage on the silver screen. As race relations changed, white fascination in blackness did not dissipate, but rather, evolved. “The reasons for the existence of minstrelsy are important also because in considering them we find out even more about the way in which the white man’s concept of the Negro changed and why it changed. This gradual change, no matter how it was manifested, makes a graph of the movement of the Negro through American society” (Baraka 83). While minstrelsy began to take different shapes and forms, it seeped into other aspects of culture. In Raising Cain, W.T. Lhamon takes a different view of minstrelsy, but does recognize it as “not a fixed thing, but slippery in its uses and effects” (Lhamon 6). Lhamon further explains this idea by asking, considering how “the minstrel show has seeped well beyond its masked variants” into such things as film, rock ‘n’ roll and sitcoms, “why, then, is the minstrel show said to be over?” (Lhamon 56). Other authors note how this manifestation has taken shape. Even America’s most beloved performers are guilty of “blacking up,” either literally or metaphorically. Ernest Cashmore points out that even in the 1930s, there were more white performers in blackface than there were actual black performers, especially in light of movies’ increasing dominance as a form of entertainment. “Mickey Roonie, Judy Garland (Babes in Arms), Betty Grable, June Haver (The Dolly Sisters) and Fred Astaire (Swing Time) are some of the best-known whites who played blacks” (Cashmore 92-3). Once again, Eric Lott’s writing is applicable to this fascination with the racial other. “It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure” (Love and Theft 6). Whites were blacking up no longer because of their felt racial superiority, but largely because of their bipolar obsession with blackness.
Once again, to experience blackface was to become black, to experience the anxiety surrounding the racial other, while also feeling the pleasure of the hyper-masculinized black man. Lott applies this theory to the modern era, calling out beat writers, Elvis Presley, Soul Man, and the “black-folk-filled music videos by Sting, Madonna” (White Like Me 483). In fantasizing about the black other, Lott describes how this plays out in a sexualized, masculinized popular culture. “Bringing to the stage the sort of ‘symbolic fornication’ that for whites denotes ‘blackness,’ his hair pomaded in imitation of blacks’ putative imitation of whites, Elvis illustrates the curious dependence of white working-class manhood on imitations of fantasized black male sexuality” (White Like Me 484). Elvis created his own sense of masculinity by using his working-class roots and sexualized view of African American masculinity. Lott also points out a similar adoption by the Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger. In the modern era, “blacking up” does not necessarily mean using physical markers, but rather, by joining together subtler markers of “blackness” and black culture. “John Szwed observes of the withering-away of blackface: ‘The fact that, say, a Mick Jagger can today perform in the [blackface] tradition without blackface simply marks the detachment of culture from race and the almost full absorption of a black tradition into white culture.’ Blackface, then, reifies and at the same time trespasses on the boundaries of ‘race’” (White Like Me 475-6). In this way, Jagger “paints it black,” but remains white with all of its attendant privileges. More recently, we can look at white rappers. Artists such as Eminem and MC Serch’s full immersion and absorption of black culture make it something that does not easily fit into cut-and-dry racial distinctions. As the white man’s conception of the black man changes, so does his appropriation. “One of the more peculiar outgrowths of hip-hop’s popularity has been the birth of the ‘wigga’ – the so-called white nigga who apes Blackness by ‘acting hip-hop’ in dress, speech, body language, and, in some cases, even gang affiliation” (Tate 15). From performers who blacked up with burnt cork and shoe polish to famous film stars to rock ‘n’ roll legends to modern day rappers, as the “markers” of blackness changed, so too did the fascination and appropriation of it.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – What is racist?
Looking back on minstrelsy, modern audiences can look in distaste at blackface, while feeling conflicted about new, appropriated blackness. In the sixth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the “gang” grapples with this very issue. “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth” deals with their home-made movie, Lethal Weapon 5. Their film is just like the others in the Lethal Weapon series; Riggs is a work-driven young white cop and Murtaugh is a veteran black detective who is “too old for this shit.” However, instead of starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, it stars the show’s two white leads Mac and Dennis. In the beginning of the movie, Mac plays Riggs and Dennis plays Murtaugh. Dennis’ depiction of the character is a call-back to the hyper-masculine black male we saw in other modern forms of minstrelsy. Half-way through the movie, Dennis and Mac switch roles, with Mac using blackface. When discussing the movie, Mac and Dennis argue about if blackface is racist and if “talking black” is any less racist.
Dennis: “Well I seriously regret switching parts with you half-way through and letting you play Murtaugh in blackface. I feel like it was in really poor taste in retrospect.”
Mac: “I think it was in poor taste that you were doing Murtaugh in whiteface. I mean for God’s sakes Dennis, what kind of message does that send? A lot of great actors have done blackface.”
Dennis: “Oh yeah. There’s countless examples of very classy actors doing blackface. Let’s see, we’ve got the great C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man, we’ve got the Wayans brothers in White Chicks that was a very tasteful example of reverse blackface.”
Mac: “OK those are bad examples. There’s tons of good examples of old movies with… Frank, help me out here.”
Frank: “Laurence Olivier in Othello.”
Mac: “Laurence Olivier in Othello dude, that’s like the classiest actor of all time.”
Dennis: “Yeah [drawn out], but I guarantee you there were some black people that were working on that movie that were like, [in mock ebonics] ‘Ah man, what that white man doin’? C’mon that ain’t right. Get a black man’” (Hornsby).
Dennis and Mac discuss modern blackface depictions, while questioning if a “classier” actor makes blackface more acceptable. Later in the scene, Mac calls out Dennis for using a “black voice” in his imitation of a black man. Dennis defends himself by saying, “That’s just an accurate portrayal.” While the guys are unsure about “black voice,” Eric Lott makes a clear distinction. “Every time you hear an expansive white man drop into his version of black English, you are in the presence of blackface’s unconscious return” (Love and Theft 5). Mac and Dennis have a hard time agreeing on what they find acceptable, but they both agree on what they find unacceptable. Omi and Winant explain the difficulty the men face while deciding what’s racist. “Our approach recognizes that racism, like race, has changed over time. It is obvious that the attitudes, practices, and institutions of the epochs of slavery, say, or of Jim Crow, no longer exist today” (Omi and Winant 71). While racism and race relations have evolved, modern day forms of minstrelsy often fit into a racist gray space.
In another scene, the gang continues to argue about what constitutes racism. Their much older friend Frank looks up actors in blackface to show which are acceptable portrayals and which are racist. First, he shows them Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Mac and Dennis both agree that it’s racist, while Frank argues that “he almost got the mouth right.”
Mac: “The lips are the most offensive part. Look, the guy is bugging his eyes out like a cartoon character. OK this is racist is shit.”
Dennis: “All blackface is racist Mac, and that’s the point I’m trying to make. You just cannot cast a white man as a black man and paint his face black. You can’t do it” (Hornsby).
The gang gets off on a tangent about the “blackness” and ambiguous race of Darth Vader. Once again, we see a blurring of racial binaries. Frank continues his ignorance by saying, “Look, look, we gotta agree on this. The whole idea is getting the right color shoe polish” (Hornsby). We can see how there exists a generational gap in views on blackface. As Lott puts it, “Given this formal and historical complexity, it is no surprise that minstrelsy has overwhelmed most attempts to study it in all its variousness and difficulty” (Love and Theft 9). In the new millennium, with our new racial understandings, we must take a look at these modern forms of minstrelsy and ask just what is racist. However, given its storied history, as Omi, Winant, Lott and this episode of It’s Always Sunny show, there may never be an easy answer.
Tropic Thunder – Blockbuster blackface
Interestingly enough, one of the most blatant depictions of blackface minstrelsy in the modern era created minimal uproar. In 2008’s Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a character actor who fully immerses himself into his movies. For the war movie within the movie, Downey’s Kirk Lazarus undergoes “a controversial pigmentation alteration procedure in order to play the platoon’s African-American sergeant, Lincoln Osiris” (Tropic Thunder). In his review for Salon.com, James Hannaham points to the film as modern-day minstrelsy. “By definition, a white actor like Downey playing a black man amounts to a minstrel act … To bring the humiliation and abuse of power at the heart of this gesture to the present day, imagine a group of wealthy California housewives forming a mariachi band and taunting the Latino workers at an orange grove” (Hannaham). Such a scathing comment would make it seem as though the movie received criticism for the use of blackface, when in fact, it did not. Hannaham points out later in his article just why blackface worked in this film. “To start with, Downey’s performance is far more complicated and nuanced than some shoe-polish-and-white-gloves variety of shuckin’ and jivin’, and for this reason it has garnered universal praise from reviewers” (Hannaham). He explains that Ben Stiller, the movie’s director, understood that the movie and Downey’s portrayal had the power to offend, but that if he pushed buttons in the right way, it would become a hit and not a racist flop. For these reasons, Stiller pre-screened the film for the NAACP, and did not face any negative backlash. In the year that Obama would become our first black president, an actor in blackface was nominated for an Academy Award.
Perhaps the biggest reason the movie succeeded was because Downey, and particularly his blackfaced character, were so absurd. While old-time minstrelsy could also be described in the same manner, it was absurdity at the expense of blackness, in this case, it was absurd at the expense of Downey’s Lazarus. “Brilliantly, Downey sinks into Lazarus’ role without ever taking him completely seriously, never letting us forget that Lazarus is attempting to pass for black, not Downey … The Aussie’s characterization is noticeably off — he adopts contemporary slang a Vietnam-era soul brother couldn’t use; he flares his eyelids just enough to graze the surface of an offensive caricature; he deepens his voice in a way that suggests Laurence Fishburne, but with just a touch of Oscar the Grouch” (Hannaham). In the Los Angeles Times, Peter Rainer describes the characterization as “equal parts plantation and blaxploitation.” Rainer says that while blackface induces cringe-worthy notes of white racism, Tropic Thunder highlights the silliness of white fantasies of blackness. “The soldier he plays, Lincoln Osiris, is a patchwork derived not from life but from show business, from blaxploitation films and ‘Benson’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’ He’s the freak who results when whites attempt to forge a black identity from the spare parts of pop culture” (Rainer). Rainer’s critique is apparent throughout the whole film. In one scene, Lazarus shows his “blackness,” which is then belittled by his African American co-star.
Lazarus: “Y’all might be in for a treat. You know, back before the war broked out, I was a saucier in San Antone. I bet I could collar up some of them greens. Yeah, noodle some crawfish out the paddy, yo. And maybe some crab apples for dessert, now, you hear? Hell, yeah!”
Alpa: “Hell, yeah! That’s how we all talk. We all talk like this, suh! Yes, suh. Yeah, get some crawfish and some ribs. You’re Australian! Be Australian!” (Tropic Thunder).
This scene perfectly demonstrates both aspects of blackface. Lazarus not only looks black, but also talks in what he perceives to be black (using collard greens as a verb).
In a later scene, Lazarus and his African-American co-star, Alpa Chino, battle for the dominant black masculine role. Lazarus questions Alpa’s reason for being in the film, while Alpa rebutts by saying, “Maybe I just knew I had to represent, because they had one good part in it for a black man and they gave it to Crocodile Dundee.” The two trade quips, ironically with Alpa perpetuating Australian stereotypes.
Alpa: “You know what? Fuck that, man! I’m sick of this koala-hugging nigga telling me…”
Lazarus (slaps Alpa and blocks a return punch): “For 400 years, that word has kept us down. It took a whole lot of trying just to get up that hill. Now we up in the big leagues, getting our turn at bat. Long as we live, it’s you and me, baby.”
Alpa: “That’s the theme song for The Jeffersons. You really need help.”
Lazarus: “Yeah. Just ’cause it’s the theme song, don’t make it not true” (Tropic Thunder).
We see how ludicrous Lazarus’ blackness is, but also see how Alpa is a caricature of what it means to be black within hip-hop culture. Perhaps the biggest twist to the film, and to this battle for black masculine dominance, is that Alpa is a closeted homosexual. “Perhaps because he’s a stereotype himself, and aware of his inauthenticity (he may be gay, but his hit single is called “I Love Tha’ Pussy”), Chino, though irritated, is relatively unfazed by Lazarus’ grab for blackness” (Hannaham). Possibly because they are both being something they are not, and are caricatures in thereof, they find common ground and friendship in the end. Once again, Omi and Winant’s definition of racism is useful to help explain how these precarious caricatures fit into a new racial discourse. “A racial project can be defined as racist if and only if it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race … Thus there can be no timeless and absolute standard for what constitutes racism, for social structures change and discourses are subject to rearticulation” (Omi and Winant 71). In Tropic Thunder, blackface is used to question what blackness is (and shows that there is no easy answer). The movie reproduces essentialist categories of race, while also critiquing it in a manner so as to not create a racist structure. The film skewers the ideas that white America has by using a symbol of this silliness as opposed to an appropriated characterization.
Bamboozled – A darker shade of black comedy
While It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Tropic Thunder use comedy to skewer and question both blackface and modern ideas of blackness, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled chooses a darker path. The film opens with a definition of satire, and is meant to be read as such. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden encapsulates the plot in one sentence. “A black Harvard-educated executive for a failing television network hatches a Frankenstein monster of a program called ‘Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.’” In a Producers-esque storyline, network exec Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) comes up with an outlandishly racist modern-day minstrel show in hopes that he will be fired so he can get out of his contract. His boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) pushes Delacroix to create a black show that’s not just a “Cosby ripoff.” In response, Delacroix says, “Dunwitty wants a coon show… so that’s what I intend to give him. The show will be so negative, so offensive and racist … The point being that him, the network… does not want to see Negroes on television… unless they are buffoons” (Bamboozled). Delacroix recruits two black street performers to star in his show. The two lead characters, Mantan and Sleep-n-Eat (their names call-backs to minstrelsy and stereotypes) would be “ignorant, dull-witted, lazy and unlucky” coons. Mantan, the “uneducated Negro” with “educated feets” and Sleep-n-Eat, his singing, comical sidekick (Bamboozled). “With Savion Glover impersonating Manray masquerading as Mantan, Tommy Davidson playing Womack performing Sleep-n-Eat, ‘two real coons’ stage racial inauthenticity; contemporary black artists replay the rubber-lipped, happy-go-lucky, dumb-as-dirt darkies on minstrelsy’s slave plantations” (Gubar 32). The show, despite ridiculing black people, becomes a hit. “Its stock characters (‘Alabama Porch Monkeys’), settings (the chicken coop, the watermelon patch), costumes (coons and buffoons in threadbare tux and top hat, harlequin checked pants and bow ties) derive from America’s popular variety shows, put on by nineteenth-century white minstrels in blackface” (Gubar 32). Delacroix’s assistant, Sloan Hopkins, while resistant, works to help her boss create the perfect storm. She works to be accurate to minstrelsy in its inaccuracy in portraying African Americans.
Hopkins: “As usual, I did my research. We should blacken up like they did back in the day. Keep the ritual the same. So, pour some alcohol on the corks and light it. Let them burn to a crisp, and when burnt out… mash them to a powder. Add water. Mix to a thick paste. And voila, you have your blackface. But please put cocoa butter on your face and hands… to protect your skin. And the final detail… are the lips. The redder the lipstick, the better. So, I suggest fire-truck red” (Bamboozled).
As we see with Frank’s comments from It’s Always Sunny, the most “accurate” portrayal is the most absurd. Many critics use scenes like this to question Lee’s use of satire. Once again, Omi and Winant’s work on racism explains why the director perhaps struggled with his satirical challenge to minstrelsy. “The distinct, and contested, meanings of racism which have been advanced over the past three decades have contributed to an overall crisis of meaning of the concept today. Today, the absence of a clear ‘common sense’ understanding of what racism means has become a significant obstacle to efforts aimed at challenging it” (Omi and Winant 70). Because there is no clear-cut definition of what is racist and what is not, Lee’s film critiques more than just race relations.
With Bamboozled, Lee attempts to show how minstrelsy still exists, but in the larger scheme of things, Lee critiques black representations throughout popular culture, particularly network television. Bambi L. Haggins discusses minstrelsy in the new millennium and shows how on a different level, the issues at play in Bamboozled occur in the current era of profit-driven TV networks. “There is a multitude of ways to coon without breaking out the burnt cork. While the overt blackface may be gone, there is a patina of minstrelsy underneath many of the existing Black sitcom texts of the new millennium” (Haggins 263-4). She says that he search to create a “funny,” successful program translates into falling back into long-held stereotypes. “The progeny of ‘(Amos &) Andy’ and `Beulah’ still play on network television – whether on Fox, the newest member of the Network big boys, or on UPN. The motivations behind these programming choices are both suspect and many” (Haggins 252). As Marcus Gilmer points out, television is not Lee’s only target. Lee takes issue with representations of blacks in the fashion world and music industry. Lee has said that while white people have attempted to bogart and take over black culture, instead of just appreciating it, he also says that the current figures in rap just maintain stereotypes. In Bamboozled, the militant rap group, the Mau Maus, serves to paint this picture. “Says (Roger) Ebert of the rap group the Mau Maus in the movie, ‘when Lee says the modern equivalent of a blackface minstrel show is the gangsta-rap music video, we see what he means: these videos are enormously popular with white kids, just as minstrel shows were beloved by white audiences, and for a similar reason: They package entertainment within demeaning and negative black images’” (Gilmer). In the movie and in real life, white fascination with blackness persists. Lee satirizes and critiques the black persona in popular culture, while leaving many questions unanswered. He blurs the lines of race and modern-day minstrelsy in one of the concluding scenes in which “Mantan” audience members of all creeds proclaim themselves as “niggers.” In this day and age, where does race fit? How do assimilation and race relations pose these questions of minstrelsy and appropriation of cultures? “But at what point does exaggerated black style, no matter how defiantly self-affirming, become a self-defeating form of minstrelsy? It is a question that’s so touchy, with so many different answers depending on who’s talking, that few dare ask it” (Holden).
While America has come a long way and proclaims its racial freedoms, minstrelsy still exists and prevails in popular culture. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Tropic Thunder and Bamboozled may raise more questions than they answer. Perception and presentation are in the eye of the beholder and it is up to us to decide where we will accept appropriation up to the point where it becomes a mere minstrel act.
Bamboozled. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett-Smith. New Line Cinema, 2000. DVD.
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Tropic Thunder. Dir. Ben Stiller. Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Brandon T. Jackson. DreamWorks, 2008. DVD.