Maintaining consistent political rectitude is a tough chore, as has become very evident in the last few weeks, most recently with the furore over the photo that appeared in a 1984 yearbook purportedly showing Governor Ralph Northam in blackface – or possibly a Ku Klux Klan costume. The boys of Covington Catholic High School have seemingly been absolved of taunting a Lakota tribal elder at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two weeks ago, but the governor’s political career is at stake in the latest round of political garment-rending, if not for the photo, at least for his admission of having impersonated Michael Jackson in a dance competition when he was 25. There’s undoubtedly more to the story in this instance, too.
Several things seem clear however. Racial insensitivity based on skin color has a long and troubling history in the United States, to put it mildly. Blackface is particularly objectionable, but it should be noted that redface, brownface, and yellowface betray similar prejudice. But until recently, none seemed to excite much attention in the dominant white population regardless of the hurt inflicted on minorities. In some instances, “cosmetically enhanced” portrayals were accepted and even applauded. (Black like Me, the riveting 1961 book by John Howard Griffin and 1964 film version with James Whitmore, comes to mind for exactly that reason – but was this blackface?)
Billy Crystal’s channeling of Sammy Davis Jr. in the 2012 Academy Awards provoked criticism but not outrage. He had done so many time before. Go back further and we find Laurence Olivier’s blackface performance of Othello for the National Theater in 1965 earning rave reviews. In 1951 Ava Gardner portrayed a mulatto in Showboat, Jeanne Crain did so in Pinky (1956). Long before, white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll charmed generations of radio listeners as Amos and Andy with a large support cast of comic caricatures. Before that, Al Jolsen’s “Mammy” and the antics of Eddie Cantor were somehow not considered offensive, although today they strike audiences as more than cringeworthy. (When Amos ‘n Andy made the transition to television in 1951, after more than 30 years on radio, the producers had the wit to cast a virtually all-black cast in the featured roles.)
Fast forward to 2008, when more than a few eyebrows lifted at Robert Downey, Jr.’s venture into blackface in Tropic Thunder, but in 1968 Keenan Wynn had received a pass in his portrayal of black-shifted Senator Billboard Rawkins in Finian’s Rainbow. (When the anti-racist musical was revised recently, two actors portrayed the racist senator.) It’s complicated.
Native Americans have also long endured being portrayed by white actors and well-meaning Boy Scouts, whose famous La Junta, Colorado, Koshare Indian Dancers never included a Native American so far as I know. The group still performs, clad in their own costumes. Similarly costumed college “mascots” such as the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek were part of “tradition,” and were retired only after bitter disputes. Redface portrayals have long since been part and parcel of the American entertainment industry, given exceptions (themselves sometimes gratuitously demeaning). Johnny Depp’s atavistic reprise as Tonto in Disney’s Lone Ranger film was nothing short of a career low.
Perhaps the most famous “fake Indian,” was “Iron Eyes Cody” a Sicilian-American actor born Espera Oscar de Corti, who appeared as a Native American in more that 200 films. His most famous role was in the televised 1971 public service announcement as “the Crying Indian.” Hardly anyone ever questioned de Corti’s false persona until after his death in 1999. De Corti played his part with convincing dignity, but despite efforts of Native American actors from Jay Silverheels as the original TV Tonto (the radio Tonto was voiced by a white man) to the contemporary and dignified efforts of Adam Beach, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, Dennis Banks, and Chief Dan George, among others, redface imposture continues. And so, evidently, do prejudice and discrimination.
Native Chinese and Chinese Americans were long treated with the same tacit and often overt contempt in entertainment media, often as villains but sometimes in positive roles. Perhaps the most famous (and to many, irritating) of these was casting a series of white actors as Charlie Chan in decades of films, primarily Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, but even Peter Ustinov had a go at it. Japanese characters fared no better until recent times. Casting Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura in Sayonara (1955) or Marlon Brando as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) now seems simply bizarre.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans received similar treatment, from the famous portrayals of Zorro by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power to Guy Williams and George Hamilton (and the immensely funny Henry Calvin as Disney’s Sergeant Garcia). At least the recent remakes with Antonio Banderas got it mostly right. Other Hollywood portrayals of Mexican figures from Wallace Beery’s over-the-top performance as Pancho Villa in 1934 to Marlon Brando’s Zapata (1952) suffered from a blind eye to generations of excellent Latino actors. Even Charleton Heston got to play a Mexican policeman in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. (1958). The list is long.
Suffice it to say that changing face is an American tradition. And so is its tacit support of racist stereotyping and offence, whether intentional or not. We can do better. We must.