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Page history last edited by Air Dupaix 12 years, 7 months ago


The mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face--Plato  


What is Blackface? 


Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup created by applying a deep black residue to the face of the actor. The makeup used was originally made of burnt cork, later greasepaint or shoe polish was used, and was usually applied to white people depicting African-Americans. There have been recent portrayals of the blackface genre seen in television and movies. An example of this is Robert Downy Jr's role in Tropic Thunder.




 Blackface was used in legitimate stage productions well before the civil war, with approximately 5000 productions observed before 1843 [1]. Used in both the North and South by minstrels in comedic productions, the performance consisted of skits intermixed with songs and punctuated with "vigorous dances"(3). The stereotyped black face characters that were developed became "buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language"(3). In the tradition of callithumpian bands, whose tumultuous disposition symbolically challenged the social order, Blackface representations, including both the "slave" and "dandy" portrayals, were seen by many white individuals as a means of surreptitiously bonding white men together through a capricious mix of enthusiasm and violence [1]. Eric Lott writes in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, "The black mask offered a way to play with the collective fears of degraded and threatening-and male-Other while at the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them"(3).


African Americans in Black Face


As the popularity of Blackfaced increased, many African-Americans began using blackface themselves. Called Authentic Black Minstrels the African-Americans, many freed slaves, staged acts very similar to their white competitors but the "colored" performers truly excelled in their polyrhtymic, using only stomping, shuffling, slapping and clapping as music, dancing. One such performer was George Washington Dixon. He attainted an exuberant amount of prominence around 1829 through his renditions of songs like "Coal Black Rose" and "Zip Coon," which he performed while wearing blackface makeup. "Zip Coon," in particular, garnered widespread acclaim and quickly became an audience favorite; today it is referred to as Dixon's trademark tune (2).



The blackface portrayals of African-American lives and culture, by both whites and African-Americans, were highly exaggerated. Many portrayals consisted of an exuberant uneducated demeanor depicted using slang and bumbling actions. Also prominent were the familiar stereo-types such as the "yes sah, no sah" of the obedient slave, the mulatto female who was available and desirable (the wild forbidden fruit), the uppity dandy (the rich lazy undeserving man who is trying to be white), and the mammy (matriarchal and usually overweight). Blackface continued into the 20th century with vadville performances and it finally "ended" in 1930.


Affects of Blackface

As films became a dominate force in entertainment, blackface was soon found on film. Most early films used people of color as extras or bit parts, but almost never as the leads. however, one of the earliest black actors not depicted using the blackface technique was Rex Ingram, who went to Hollywood as a young man where he was literally discovered on a street corner by a film casting director. He first appeared on screen in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) and had many small roles, usually as a generic black native. Contrary to Blackface's assumed racism, African-American actors like Ingram did manage to secure small rolls with payment in the early film industry. A greater minority of African-Americans were able to produce and direct their own films. Oscar Micheaux, who opened his own publishing company before ever stepping into the world of film, is widely regarded is the first African-American film director. He wrote several novels in addition to directing and producing approximately 44 feature-length films between 1919 and 1948. His first attraction, The Homesteader, premiered in 1919, and was shown in many "white" movie theaters. His second film, Within Our Gates (1919), took a stance against the racist portrayals of Africans in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Recently, the Producers Guild of America referred to him as "The most prolific black - if not most prolific independent - filmmaker in American cinema."


Social Implications  

Movies have always been a powerful medium for the propagation of racial stereo-types. The premier of "Birth of a Nation"  in 1915 marked a change in emphasis from the pretentious and inept "Jim Crow" stereo-types to that of the "Savage Negro." Griffith later admitted that his film was intended to,"create a feeling of abhorrence in white people - especially white women with his portrayal of African-American men.


(clip of Birth of a Nation, showing the new state legislature)


Spike Lee, a famous film writer and director, released a satirical film in 2000 called Bamboozled. The film's premise is that it is possible to create a popular TV show in today's world which personifies blackface. Using African-American actors such as Jada Pinkett Smith, Johnnie Cochran, and Al Sharpton, the film shows that America as a society still does not realize how offensive and dehumanizing the portrayal of blackface is. It also shows the personal tragedy and social ignorance that occurs when racism is exploited for fame and fortune.  



Interpreations of Blackface

While some feel that blackface is still used as an institutionalized form of racism, some see it as helping to promote the culture of African-Americans while others feel that it is a harmless art form and does no damage to us as a society.


John Strausbaugh in his book Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, thinks blackface is central to a longer tradition of "displaying Blackness". He writes "To this day, whites admire, envy and seek to emulate such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism, the composure known as 'cool' and superior sexual endowment," a phenomemon he views as part of the history of blackface. For more than a century, when white performers have wanted to appear sexy, like Elvis or Mick Jaggar; or streewise, like Eminem, or hip like Mezz Mezzrow, they often have turned to African-American performance styles, stage presence and personas. Pop culture referencing and cutural appropriation of African-American performance and stylistic traditions—often resulting in tremendous profit—is a tradition with origins in blackface minstrelsy" (3).


Despite the negative connotations derived from the blackface persona, many people still use it as a means of artistic interpretation without any negative racist implications. The frightening picture below was taken from the Howl! Festival in 2007:



The performer in the picture sang the Al Jolson, a famous white performer who used blackface, song, "Mammy," along with two African-American singers - also wearing blackface. It is interesting to watch the evolution of this particular movement as it blossomed from the roots of racism, transmutating into a harmless vaudeville-esque art form for all to enjoy. 




Work Cited


1. A Short History of Film (Dixon, Foster)

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Micheaux

3."Blackface" Wikipedia.com, October 21, 2009. Web. October 22, 2009.

Comments (2)

Sean Desilets said

at 9:44 am on Oct 13, 2009

* Also: need some work on that clip

Sean Desilets said

at 9:42 am on Oct 13, 2009

* What are "callithumpian bands"?
* Unclosed quotation from Griffith under "social implications"
* Italicize film titles
* Things get confusing at the end there. Need a more systematic way of unifying the various perspectives getting presented here. "Harmless"? "Racist"? "A form whose tumultuous disposition symbolically challenged the social order"?

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