8 Movies That Shamefully Used Blackface
200 years ago, white performers started painting their faces black to mock enslaved Africans in minstrel shows across the United States. Whilst this practice may have been entertaining at the time, we now live in a more culturally sensitive society, and looking back at the practice of Blackface, we are shocked and ashamed of how things used to be. But blackface has not disappeared completely, and film is guilty for resurrecting this racist and insensitive practice. The following films on this list have chosen to explore the subject matter or racism through a rather risque and taboo way.
It’s important to remember that the actors never went out of their way to offend anybody, but now we are more aware of what is and isn’t offensive, their performances can be seen as highly controversial. We have adjusted our behavior accordingly, but looking back, we start to realise just how misguided some film-makers were during a more culturally insensitive time. You just can’t get away with this type of practice in today’s society. Here are 8 Movies That Shamefully Used Blackface.
Aliens – Jenette Goldstein – Brownface
Jenette Goldstein’s performance as Private Vasquez was so convincing, that audiences were completely unaware that the actress behind the Hispanic ass kicking marine was actually white. On screen, Vasquez is one of the most prominent Marines in the film, showing that shes just as hardworking and mean talking as any of her male counterparts, but off film, Vasquez’s actress Goldstein had to sit in make-up to make her self look Hispanic, going brownface for the movie. Goldstein performance is highly praised though, even winning Saturn Award. Modern day audiences just would not put up with this though, but back in the 80’s, no one even blinked an eye.
Soul Man (1986) – Christopher Thomas Howell – Blackface
Soul Man is a 1986 American comedy film about a white man who wears make-up in order to pretend to be black and qualify for a black-only scholarship at Harvard Law School. As you can imagine from the films plot, Soul Man really shot itself in the foot with a concept that’s pretty distasteful. The film was widely criticized for featuring Caucasian actor Christopher Thomas Howell wearing blackface. Despite the huge backlash the film received from audiences, Howell firmly defends the film, claiming the film is anti-racist.
“I’m shocked at how truly harmless that movie is, and how the anti-racial message involved in it is so prevalent… This isn’t a movie about blackface. This isn’t a movie that should be considered irresponsible on any level… It’s very funny… It made me much more aware of the issues we face on a day-to-day basis, and it made me much more sensitive to racism… It’s an innocent movie, it’s got innocent messages, and it’s got some very, very deep messages.”
Lone Ranger (2013) – Johnny Depp – Redface
Based on the radio series of the same name, Lone Ranger is a story about a vigilante in the 1930s. The movie that literally no one asked for caused a huge uproar when it cast a white actor for an Native Indian role. Rather than casting an actual Indian for the part, Walt Disney Pictures decided to hire a big name actor that would attract ticket sales, which turned out to be Caucasian actor Johnny Depp. Disney don’t exactly have a great track record in Native American characters, with Peter Pan being a huge contention for many, so Disney’s Redface incident comes as no real surprise. Unlike many of the actors in this list, Depp doesn’t regret his role, and taunted critic that cried foul play.
Trading Places (1983) – Dan Aykroyd – Blackface
Dan Aykroyd has had a vast and rich career, having cut his teeth as a regular actor on Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd was part of a new wave of comedy elite, alongside others comics such as Bill Murray, Richard Pryor and John Belushi, who dominated cinema and TV during the 80’s. Despite a brief hiatus during the 90’s he still pops up in small roles, with his next cameo being in the sequel of Zombie Land. Though Aykroyd has had an amazing career in comedy, he fell rock bottom when he went blackface whilst starring alongside Eddie Murphey in the film Trading Places. Donning blackface and dreadlocks as a disguise, Aykroyd laughs his way through this awkward and distasteful sequence.
The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) – Christopher Lee – Yellowface
The Face of Fu Manchu stars Christopher Lee as the eponymous villain, a Chinese criminal mastermind. Fu Manchu is a renegade Chinese warlord and evil genius bent on world domination. The big issue here being that Christopher Lee is not Chinese. The actor went Yellowface, complete with eye prosthetics to give him that authentic Chinese look. Whilst Lee does his best to bring the fictional character to life, you can’t help but think that a there’s must have been a Chinese actor available at the time that could have filled the role, and not left a bad taste in our mouths.
White Chicks (2004) – Shawn and Marlon Wayan – Whiteface
A door can swing two ways, and what’s in bad taste in one way, the mirror can too be offensive. Shawn and Marlon Wayan thought they had hit comedy gold, when they decided to star in a film as two black cops who have gone under cover as two white mega-rich billionaire cruise line heiresses. The film was met with terrible reviews and critics rightfully accused the Wayans of racism. As lowbrow comedies go, this one is pretty low, but Marlon Wayans defends his decision to go white.
“I think people like to uproar over nothing. Some people got mad at us when we did ‘White Chicks’ but you know when we did ‘White Chicks’ you know who loved the movie most? White chicks. There’s always going to be some hater going ‘oh I don’t like this, I don’t like that.’ Do you. When Robert Downey, Jr. damn near won an Academy award for playing a black dude, nobody got mad like ‘Oh you was in black face.’ I think creatively you’ve got to give people the creative space to make decisions. As long as it’s not done in an offensive manner, I think it’s fine.”
Tropic Thunder (2008) – Robert Downey Jr. – Blackface
Just when we though society had grown and matured, one bad egg always ends up stinking the place up. Enter Robert Downey Jr. in the Ben Stiller helmed comedy film Tropic Thunder. Downey Jr plays the Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, an award winning actor who under goes surgery to for his next film. Kirk under goes skin pigmentation to become African American Sgt Osiris. Yes, the film is mocking method acting, but this does not bypass the fact that Downey does appear on screen in Blackface. No matter what the context, it’s in poor taste.
Short Circuit (1986) – Fisher Stevens – Brownface
The sci-fi adventure film Short Circuit has one of the worst cases of Blackface in recent history. Whilst Tropic thunder may outdate Short Circuit by 22 years, Robert Downey Jr. portrayal is supposed to be ironic. In the case of Fisher Stevens and his role as Ben Jabituya (or Benjamin Jahveri in the sequel short circuit 2) it’s a lot more insensitive, as the white actor went Brownface for the film . Whilst it’s easy to point the finger at the actor, Stevens strongly regrets the two films, explaining that he’s not the real villain of the piece, but “a well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time”.
“Originally, the role of Benjamin was a white grad student, and then the director and co-writer of ‘Short Circuit’ changed the character to Indian,” he told me. They then went to Mr. Stevens and asked, “Can you play Indian?”
It was 1987, so we were all a little less savvy about the things we were doing that were actually hurtful to large groups of people, and the answer, for a 21-year-old struggling actor, was yes.”
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