Wednesday, March 12, 2008

21st Century Blackface

Tropic Thunder (opening Aug. 15) is a Ben Stiller comedy starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus. Now, try to keep up here: In the movie, Lazarus is a serious, Oscar-winning actor who is cast in a Vietnam War film. The twist is that Lazarus (played by Downey) takes a role in the war film that was written for a Black man. In order to keep the role, Lazarus dyes his skin and pulls on a wig to play the Black character named "Osiris." Stiller promises that Tropic Thunder is a satire of prima donna Hollywood actors. The goal of the film is to skewer actors self-indulgent enough to do really stupid things, to include a White man taking a job that could go to a Black actor.

On this point, let me be clear: I hope Stiller is clever enough to reveal to audiences that it is not unusual for White actors to latch onto meaty roles that could otherwise go to the ever-underemployed Black actor. We’ve seen such casting before: Susan Kohner as Sara Jane in Imitation of Life (1959), Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, or (again) Jolie as “Fox” (Mark Millar’s comic version of a brown/black Catwoman) for the coming movie Wanted.

But there is another issue here. Downey hopes of his blackface character Lazarus/Osiris: “if done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago.” Oh no! Are we talking the same Peter Sellers who appeared in “brownface” in the film The Party to portray Hrundi V. Bakshi, an actor from India? In The Party, Bakshi is a straight up buffoon who attends a swanky Hollywood party but: loses one of his shoes, speaks gibberish (“birdie num num”) as a stand-in for Hindi, has no understanding of appliances or technology, floods a home with soap bubbles, and develops a relationship with an elephant. To be sure, Sellers’ brownface and his depiction of an Asian as a childlike buffoon is racist. If this is the standard for Tropic Thunder, Stiller should pull this movie now!

It is also notable that blackface is "in" these days in all sorts of odd ways. Jolie “bronzed up” to play Pearl. Equally troublesome was the blackening of Black actors Forest Whitaker and Kerry Washington for their roles in the Idi Amin biopic The Last King of Scotland.

Sisterdoc encourages readers to revisit Watermelon Man starring Godfrey Cambridge as a White bigot turned Black. Good satire, great casting, and (hee hee!) excellent use of “Whiteface.”

(Images: Tropic Thunder; Peter Sellers in "brownface" in The Party; Forest Whitaker in "blackface" in The Last King of Scotland; Godfrey Cambridge in "whiteface" in Watermelon Man.)

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