Why are liberal comedians so obsessed with blackface?
It’s no laughing matter, of course, watching high-profile Left-leaning comedians squirm, apologise and plead for the benefit of the doubt. Still, if you were minded to smirk a little at the unfolding spectacle – affluent representatives of the entertainment elite, on both sides of the Pond, behaving like naughty children summoned to the headmaster’s office to discuss their “blacking up” – the past month has offered rich pickings.
In the past few days alone, we’ve seen a bout of high-profile mea culpas. On Tuesday, the US comedian and late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel – due to host the Emmys in September – issued a belated apology for his 1990s blackface impressions of basketball player Karl Malone and Oprah Winfrey, also conceding that he had taken too long to address the issue.
“I apologise to those who were genuinely hurt or offended by the makeup I wore or the words I spoke,” he explained. His delay, he insinuated, only stemmed from an anxiety about being hobbled in his bid to hold Right-wing, Trumpian power to account: “Doing so would be celebrated as a victory by those who equate apologies with weakness and cheer for leaders who use prejudice to divide us."
That contorted justification came on the heels of an announcement that four episodes of the sitcom 30 Rock (2006–2013) were being withdrawn because of blackface characterisation – among them episodes in season three when Jane Krakowski’s Jenna wore blackface to experience “life” as an African-American male, and another in season five when her character attended a costume party blacked-up.
The show’s creator Tina Fey – down to host the delayed Golden Globes next year – made a sombre declaration: “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologise for the pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid really needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness.”
It remains to be seen what pronouncement might be made about Fey’s more recent Netflix sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in which Krakowski plays a “passing-for-white” character of Native American descent – but who else is trying to grasp the stinging nettle?
Doing the online rounds again is the notorious blackface “moment” of comedian Sarah Silverman, who was fired from a film when a photo surfaced of her blacked-up for a 2007 sketch on The Sarah Silverman Show. (The “gag” entailed Silverman stating: “I look like the beautiful Queen Latifah.”)
In her admission last year, Silverman (a former partner of Kimmel’s) somehow contrived to restate her liberal credentials while acknowledging she had let the side down. To her, the fact she “knew” that the character was “wrong” meant, at the time, that it was acceptable.
“It was like, ‘I’m playing a character, and I know this is wrong, so I can say it,’” she pleaded. “I’m clearly liberal. That was such liberal-bubble stuff, where I actually thought it was dealing with racism by using racism. I don’t get joy in that anymore. It makes me feel yucky. All I can say is that I’m not that person anymore.”
It’s quite a roll-call of those with the supposedly “correct” political credentials who’ve asked for atonement and described a journey of self-improvement. In late May, another American comedian, Jimmy Fallon, was abject about blacking up as comedian Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live (the TV comedy institution which gave the world a blacked-up mock-Obama in 2008).
The skit surfaced online, and a Tweet of contrition ensued. “In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface,” it ran. “I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.”
In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface. There is no excuse for this.
I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) May 26, 2020
Taken together, this gives us almost a clip-show’s worth of 2020 apologias and ostentatious self-flagellations. America has those guys and gals; we’ve had our own fair share. There was Leigh Francis’s almost parody-able confession about his myriad failings on Bo’ Selecta, that inexplicably successful early 2000s comedy on Channel 4. (Recall that it was set up to foster better, not more grotesque, ethnic-minority representation on TV.)
Though he was in character – as Keith Lemon – he took responsibility. “Back then,” he said, “I didn’t think anything about it. People didn’t say anything. I’m not going to blame other people… I didn’t realise how offensive it was back then. I just want to apologise – I just want to say sorry for any upset I caused whether I was Michael Jackson, Craig David, Trisha Goddard, all people I’m a big fan of. I guess we’re all on a learning journey.”
David Walliams and Matt Lucas, who compounded their outrage-baiting blacking-up antics on Little Britain with the even more censorship-defying mockumentary Come Fly with Me (2013), fall into the same bracket of retrospective disavowal. Things have changed, runs the now-instantly-recognisable line of argument; they wouldn’t make ’em like that anymore.
And question-marks hang over supposed-racist instances of blackface in The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh (withdrawn from some streaming services). Those combing for further incriminating material might alight on those other 1990s deities, Reeves and Mortimer, and their miniaturised Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, as well as Chris Morris’s supposed black rapper – Fur Q – on The Day Today, both BBC. Debate, meanwhile, still flares up around Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G.
Clearly, prompted by the horrific killing of George Floyd on May 25 and a subsequent mass eruption of Black Lives Matter protests, a “correction” is going on amid a climate of justified outrage at systemic racism. In comedy, you can talk about “systemic” failings, because so many people would have waved those offensive skits through, and so many people watched them.
The “systemic” argument, however, partly helps the individual artist to self-exculpate, even though it was clearly their creative decision to tailor material to the perceived mores of the time. Until recently those mores were confused to an exploitable degree – an awareness of some things being unacceptable, coupled with a contrary yearning for challenging material to be permissible.
There was never a period when blackface wasn’t insensitive, and racially insulting, but it has taken post-war American and British society a long time to accept that to the hilt. The (self-serving) cultural defence, outside of comedy, as in the case (say) of blacking up to play Othello – which even the BBC allowed, for its 1978–1985 series Television Shakespeare – was that it was, until relatively recently, a case of “needs must”.
But as David Leonard, former chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, argued in a 2012 article for the Huffington Post: “Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes… the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism and centuries’ worth of injustice.”
The primary thrust of the alternative-comedy movement which emerged on both sides of the Atlantic at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s was that it was banishing the bad “isms” – racism, sexism and so on. Blackface was part of that. What happened broadly in the 1990s, which saw the onset of South Park and non-PC, taboo-busting galore, is that the new orthodoxy of adhering to liberal pieties was seen to be waivable, provided that the nominal offender was a member of the right club.
There emerged a form of racism somehow deemed acceptable, provided it was accompanied by an arch awareness of its crassness. Vilified though they were for the racially insensitive nature of their material, the likes of Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning didn’t, to the best of my knowledge, ever resort to blackface. You hardly need to be Donald Trump Jr – who Tweet-tiraded at Kimmel: “We’re pointing out the utter hypocrisy of you & your lib friends always trying to cancel YOUR political enemies, but refusing to hold yourselves to the same woke standards” – to detect the unwholesome whiff of double-standards.
Even by the end of the 1960s in the UK, when Spike Milligan’s abominable multi-cultural sitcom Curry and Chips was met with howls of outrage and scrapped – a blacked-up Milligan was playing an Irishman of Pakistani heritage –blacking up was becoming ever more unpalatable. In America, with its long-suspect and long-denounced tradition of minstrelsy, dating back to the early 19th century, alarm bells should have been ringing loudly for a good time prior to the turn of the 21st century, and certainly after it.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that the alarm bells did indeed ring – but the imperative to cause shock, combined with a sense of entitlement and liberal-class invulnerability, won the day. A collective suspension of consequences ensued, finally punctured by the recent clamour for change, assisted by an ongoing digital revolution. It forces all concerned, not just the comedians, to take a long hard look in the mirror.
Is there scope for the avoidance of the worst excesses of today’s cancel culture when it comes to these freshly contrite celebrities? Whoopi Goldberg argued for some measure of understanding in these matters in her 1998 memoir. Mind you, she had good reason to do so, having been responsible for a notorious instance of blacking-up in 1993 that involved her then-boyfriend, Cheers star Ted Danson, at the New York Hilton hotel, as part of the annual ‘roast’ by The New York Friar’s Club. “He was a white man, made up in blackface, performing material written for the occasion by a black woman,” she wrote. That huge controversy ran for weeks, and still resurfaces.
“Sometimes we need to let those mistakes slide, you know,” Goldberg suggested in her book. “Sometimes we need to be bigger than the folks who don’t know any better. I’m not saying we should tolerate ignorance but maybe we should be a little more tolerant of ignorant people who step in s--t and need to learn from it, or want to learn from it.”
If the learning is “real”, perhaps all’s well that ends well. But we’re surely permitted the kind of cynicism with which comedy is habitually awash, as we contemplate a supposed new era of racial sensitivity and thoughtfulness from those at the top of the entertainment tree.