From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Racism and Representation in Entertainment

At some point this week, I came across a BuzzFeed post entitled, “The BuzzFeed Black History Reading List,” which included a series of essays and articles reflecting upon the end of Black History Month. One of the articles in this post shines an accusatory spotlight down on Hollywood’s use of Blackface today. After some initial disbelief and some precursory digging, I found the amount of performers who have performed in blackface appalling and the names I cam across equally as shocking. And, no, these were not performers from the Civil Rights Era-America of the 1960s; these were household names that are beloved today. Fred Armisen; Robert Downey, Jr.; Billy Crystal; Robert De Niro and so many more were among my initial Google searches. Even though this piece of writing was published before the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, it signifies the refusal to be compliant with racism in the entertainment industry.

However shocking, this is not a new concept to the world of entertainment. Arts in America have deep roots in overt racism, specifically with blackface. The article details the history of these practices from post-Civil War shows where white actors would represent different black stereotypes. After the Civil Rights Movement, “Blaxploitation films” were a small victory for black actors because there was “material featuring black actors [being] produced,” as Kelley Carter reports in the BuzzFeed article. But the issue of blackface today, in addition to the offensive history that it represents, can best be summed up by the message that Hollywood represents by actions of these kinds—that people of color are not wanted, and that rather than cast a person of color, someone who is white can play it better.

Based on the Adams article, actions such as the instances of blackface represent how racism from the past remains and lingers in our society, connecting to the idea that whites can capitalize on appropriation and it become culturally acceptable. It has made me think about the roles of representation and lack of representation in the arts. On a more personal level, it has made me think about how cultural appropriation morphs into inappropriate representation. What is the proper protocol when art represents race in a not-so-tasteful fashion? An example of this originates from a rehearsal I had this past week (the group will not be disclosed). The song set is based off of Native American melodies, but is composed by a white-American composer from the early 20th century. Specifically, there is a problematic lyric that says, “The Red Man’s Race shall be perished soon.” The decision was to change the lyric for its obvious offensive and racist slur. I did, however, feel conflicted about this decision primarily because it felt to me as if we were covering up our racist past as Americans, and pushing aside the maltreatment that the whites inflicted upon the Native Americans. A large component and role of music and art is for posterity’s sake—even if it is wrong—so that the composer’s work (and the beliefs of the time) live on. No matter how unpleasant it may be, negative beliefs toward the Native Americans was a reality all throughout America’s history, and this removal of the lyric signifies our contemporary mindset that we should pretend that it didn’t happen and the responsibility is not ours today. This deliberately removes the opportunity to ponder about the ramifications of racial ideologies expression as indicate by this piece.

Adams also addresses how media representations lead to decreased self-esteem of people of color. My question becomes, where does the line get drawn for when racist representation is right and where is omission acceptable?