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Comedy’s Blackface Purge Was Long Overdue

By Aditya Mani Jha 22 June 2020

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Netflix appears to be in the middle of an extensive audit, and the objective is simple: get rid of anything that features white actors in blackface. The tradition of white actors using theatrical makeup to play black caricatures has been the target of much ire already, but this latest move comes in the wake of global anti-racism protests after the death of George Floyd. Last week, it was announced that the streaming giant had removed several episodes of the long-running sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as well as an episode of the sketch comedy show W/ Bob and David, by comedians David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. In a non-apology by Cross on Twitter that can only make things worse, the comedian and actor said that the blackface sketch had been performed “by this ridiculous, foolish character” and that the point was “to underscore the absurdity”. At some level, this is typically asinine American bravado on the duo’s part—never back down, never surrender, and if everyone’s seen you lose, just pretend you’ve won instead. Trump has it down to an art—a profane, infuriating word-salad fuelled art.

This latest round of removals comes hot on the heels of a very public purge in the UK, as Netflix, BBC iPlayer and BritBox all removed Little Britain (2003-2005), a sketch comedy show created by David Walliams and Matt Lucas. The duo’s airport mockumentary Come Fly With Me was also removed. Other shows cut include The Mighty Boosh, a cult comedy show (2004-2007) that combines elements of sketch comedy, musical theatre and nonsense verse. Also on the chopping block: The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 2017), another sketch comedy show written and performed by Mark Gatiss (co-creator of the BBC series Sherlock), Steve Pemberton, Jeremy Dyson and Reece Shearsmith, who formed the titular ‘League of Gentlemen’ comedy troupe in 1995. All of these shows used white actors in blackface at some point during the early 2000s.   

None of the British comedians took Cross and Odenkirk’s cue—thank God for small mercies. They have all apologised profusely, especially Lucas and Walliams, who appear to be genuinely mortified and repentant. But that itself beggars the question: if the embarrassment was real, why wait for Netflix or BritBox to pull the rug from underneath your feet? If they understood what they did was wrong and why, couldn’t Lucas or Walliams have apologised years ago, and withdrawn the episodes in question themselves? To understand this, one has to understand the historical contexts from which these sketch comedies developed, both in the US and the UK.

Blackface as white mythology

In America and the UK, the 20th century sketch comedy grew out of the minstrelsy and music hall traditions, respectively. The British professor and author Michael Pickering has written extensively about the history of music hall. In Music Hall: A History of Pleasure (1986, edited by Peter Bailey), Pickering wrote an essay specifically on music hall performers’ fondness for blackface in the Victorian (1837-1901) and Edwardian (1901-1910) periods.

Pickering begins by examining the existing theory on the matter—namely, that in the years leading up to World War I, global conflicts were happening on a hitherto unprecedented scale, and so the contours of chauvinism shifted slowly but surely the world over. Content no more with the primacy of their own race (ethnocentrism), white people made the progression to overt and full-fledged racism. While Pickering acknowledges that this is true, broadly speaking, he goes a bit further and argues that blackface allowed performers the perfect mask—a way to critique Victorian propriety, “a cultural space bracketed off from the moral rules and regulated behaviour of mundane reality.”

Lois Rutherford’s essay in the same volume traces the genealogy of the sketch comedy, locating it as the last link in a chain that stretches back to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin who in turn were influenced by medieval traditions like the commedia dell’arte. She admits that the form itself was thoroughly commercial—the shift from music hall’s boisterous drunken song-and-dance routines to a more ‘civilised’ variety sketch comprised of jokes and light music was prompted by the desire to serve the moneyed classes who would otherwise stay away from the ‘rowdiness’ of working-class entertainment. However, as Rutherford shows, these early sketches (including those that involved blackface) often discussed issues of class conflict and stifling morality, topics deemed unfit for ‘polite conversation’ at the time—blackface, then, became a kind of negotiation tactic, a small rebellion against an audience whose patronage these performers grudgingly accepted.

This is about actions and consequences, about accountability.

In America, too, the legacy of Al Jolson (1886-1950) is similarly complicated. The Jewish, Russia-born singer, comedian and actor was America’s most popular performer of the 1920s and a huge influence on modern-day Broadway musicals. But today, he’s remembered most often for his blackface performances, like in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer; comedian Hannah Gadsby has a joke in her new stand-up special Douglas where she’s mortified at her mother’s gift for her—a handmade sweatshirt with Al Jolson-in-blackface on it. Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino alludes to American ‘Jim Crow’ caricatures via his dance moves in his song This is America. It’s also true, however, that Jolson was well-regarded by a lot of African-American musicians, artists and intellectuals of the time, not least because he stood up for their rights time and again, especially on Broadway and Hollywood (during his movie The Singing Kid, for example, he demanded equal pay for his African-American colleagues). At his funeral, a wide cross-section of African-American performers lined up to pay their respects.

In Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), Eric Lott writes: “For the white minstrel man to put on the cultural forms of ‘blackness’ was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry (…) To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood.” 

Now that about a dozen shows and films (including Gone With the Wind) have been removed from Netflix, you can be sure that writing rooms across America and the UK will be on their toes, checking and double-checking their scripts.

When we see people like David Cross trying to justify blackface performances today, they’re basically trying to tap into some of these ‘complications’ around the usage of blackface, only minus the goodwill of— or the actual work done by—the likes of Jolson. Fans of Little Britain or The Mighty Boosh in the UK want something similar for their beloved comedians—they want their heroes to be able to use horribly offensive stereotypes in the services of irony (which almost certainly will be ignored by racist viewers). But on the question of artistic responsibility, they’re largely silent. Think of products like the film Tropic Thunder, where Robert Downey Jr’s vainglorious method actor Kirk Lazarus surgically darkens his face and puts on a ‘blaccent’ 24×7, in order to prepare for his role as an African-American sergeant. Somehow, we are supposed to laugh at the foolishness, tut-tut under our breaths (because racism) and then proceed to watch an additional hour or so of Downey Jr, one of the whitest white people in the histories of whiteness or people, hamming it up with his y’alls and his ain’t nos.   

Another popular bromide on the topic is “a politics of guilt will never be productive”. The intellectual bankruptcy of this argument is self-evident: this isn’t and never was about guilt alone. I don’t think black artists want Cross, Odenkirk or Walliams to go sit in a corner and think about what they’ve done, a la Dennis the Menace. This is about actions and consequences, about accountability. Now that about a dozen shows and films (including Gone With the Wind) have been removed from Netflix, you can be sure that writing rooms across America and the UK will be on their toes, checking and double-checking their scripts—more importantly, even the whitest production teams may decide to bring on board black writers and actors and musicians.

How can that be considered unproductive or largely symbolic? This is what real change looks like, I’d argue.

Coda: The Streisand Effect

A cautionary note, however, is in order. While I agree with Netflix’s decision to remove the blackface films/episodes, it is vital that we do not shun these artists, do not relegate them to the dustbins of history. I say this not only as someone who has enjoyed these people being funny in other things (Matt Lucas, for instance, has appeared in films like Bridesmaids, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Polar), but also as a frequently scared individual alarmed at the multi-modal rise of xenophobia and fascism throughout the world.     

Imagine, for a minute, the unlikely scenario that Cross or Lucas or Walliams are unofficially shunned by the entertainment industry—no new projects for the next 3, 4, 5 years. What do you think will happen next? Those among you who are children-of-the-Internet like me can fill in the blanks easily—these comedians and their now-removed sketches will become fodder for the alt right, plain and simple. We learnt earlier this month that Netflix now has a Black Lives Matter page, collating films and shows by black creators. Well, you can count on the Breitbarts of the world to create their own “All Lives Matter” website—what if these creators, disillusioned and a little bit barmy on account of persistent unemployment, give them the blessing to use their offensive works?

And even if there isn’t anything quite so organised as this hypothetical scenario, you can’t stop Reddit or 4chan users from littering the corners of the Internet with unauthorised video clips. It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole; the moment you smash one of ‘em down, another one pops out of its hole.

In 2003, legendary American performer Barbra Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Edelman and The California Coastal Records Project, for inadvertently clicking pictures of her beach-facing Malibu mansion. Streisand hit them with a cease-and-desist letter, despite the fact that the whole thing was a conservation effort, part of the then-ongoing documentation of California’s coastline. After the internet got wind of Streisand’s litigiousness, the images of her house were shared widely on various online platforms, thus rendering the loss of privacy lawsuit futile. Merriam Webster now recognises reactance phenomena like these under the name ‘The Streisand Effect’.

So while Netflix’s decision to remove Little Britain et al is correct, both morally and from a business point of view, it’s important to note that the intention is not to erase these shows or their creators from public memory. The focus should remain on introspection and accountability, rather than a blanket ban spree. Otherwise, L’affaire Blackface could end up becoming a case study like the Streissand affair.

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