CONTENT WARNING: DEPICTIONS OF BLACKFACE. Casual depictions of racism in movies are a result of institutionalized white supremacy. Racial stereotypes are reinforced by pop culture and it causes harm. I do not wish to cause more harm by posting the following photos, but I think it’s imperative that we (white people) confront these images – and our complicity in the institutionalized racism that allows these depictions to thrive – head-on. Doing the research for this piece made me profoundly uncomfortable, and it should make you uncomfortable to read it.
February is Black History Month, a time set aside to honor the history and contributions of black Americans. The origins of Black History Month date back to 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson proposed that the second week of February should be “Negro History Week”. That week was chosen to coincide with the birth dates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson’s hope was to encourage the teaching of black history in schools; several state departments of education and city school administrations chose to participate that first year, with more joining in later. The first Black History Month took place at Kent State University in 1970, and over the next several years, Black History Month was celebrated in educational institutions and community centers around the country. In 1976, President Gerald Ford formally recognized Black History Month.
Last year for Black History Month, I wrote a piece about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ failure to recognize the accomplishments of black artists both in front of and behind the camera (https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/02/25/black-history-month-and-the-oscars/). This year, I’ll take a look at whitewashing and blackface in cinema.
Whitewashing, the practice of hiring white actors to portray non-white characters, can apply to characters of any ethnic or racial group (for now, we’ll specifically look at the whitewashing of black or biracial characters). Blackface is the use of dark theatrical makeup by people of non-African descent, often to present a caricatured version of a racial stereotype (for example, “happy-go-lucky slave” or “sassy maid”). While blackface is used less frequently these days, for obvious reasons, the insidious custom of whitewashing is unfortunately still quite prevalent (the most recent film on this list is just five years old).
- The Birth of a Nation
In the early days of cinema, it was commonplace for black characters to be portrayed by white actors in blackface. The most infamous example of this practice is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation. One of the earliest blockbusters (it’s earned an estimated $1.8 billion, adjusted for inflation), The Birth of a Nation was essentially a KKK recruitment film; the rebirth of the Klan took place just a few months after its release. If there was any doubt about the filmmakers’ intentions here, the name of the novel on which The Birth of a Nation is based is The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. And in case that’s still too subtle, here’s another “fun” fact: Griffith’s father Jacob was a colonel in the Confederate Army. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban The Birth of a Nation; Griffith was so incensed by the effort to censor his work, he titled his next film Intolerance.
- Show Boat
In 1951’s Show Boat, Ava Gardner (who is of English, Irish and Scottish descent) was cast as biracial character Julie LaVerne. Initially, Lena Horne (herself biracial) was to have played Julie; Horne had already played Julie in 1946’s Till the Clouds Roll By, a fictionalized Jerome Kern biopic. But MGM executives were nervous about casting a glamorous black woman in such a prominent role, so Gardner – who was under contract with MGM at the time – was given the part.
- A Mighty Heart
Unlike the other films on this list, A Mighty Heart is a true story. Based on the Mariane Pearl memoir of the same name, A Mighty Heart is about Pearl’s relationship with her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel – and Daniel’s grisly death at the hands of Pakistani militants. Mariane, who was born in France to an Afro-Chinese-Cuban mother and a Dutch Jewish father, is played by Angelina Jolie. Mariane herself made appearances with the cast and crew at events for the film; whether this implies her approval of the casting is not for me to say. Either way, seeing Jolie decked out in a curly wig and brown contacts is disconcerting (see featured image).
- Trading Places
Comedy classic Trading Places, starring Dan Akyroyd and Eddie Murphy, is a product of its time (1983): equal parts hilarious and cringeworthy. Although the story itself (two men of opposite social status are swapped for a nature vs. nurture bet by billionaire brothers) is still a winner, some of the film’s elements – use of the n-word, the implied rape of a character by a gorilla – have aged poorly. In one particularly cringe-inducing scene, Dan Aykroyd’s character dons blackface and a fake Jamaican accent to avoid detection by the brothers’ henchman.
Oh look, it’s Angelina Jolie again. Wanted is very loosely based on the comic book series of the same name by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. In the comic book, Jolie’s character “Fox” is biracial, inspired by Halle Berry. Which begs the question, if a character is inspired by Halle Berry, why not just cast Halle Berry?
- Soul Man
1986’s Soul Man stars C. Thomas Howell as Mark Watson, whose wealthy father reneges on his promise to pay for Mark’s law school education. Mark finds out that the only scholarship still available is earmarked for an African-American student, so he takes a large dose of tanning pills (WUT?) and off to Harvard Law he goes. The filmmakers genuinely seem to believe they’re making a profound statement about racism, but the whole affair is awkward and embarrassing and extremely unfunny.
- Pay It Forward
This terrible 2000 flick, based on a terrible 1999 novel, is manipulative and mawkish. Of its many sins, the worst is that the book’s black teacher named Reuben St. Clair becomes a white man named Eugene Simonet for the movie. Casting a black man in the role wouldn’t have made Pay It Forward better (yes, it really is that bad, just take my word for it), but the whitewashing of the role is completely unnecessary.
- The New Mutants
The New Mutants, Marvel’s attempt at an X-Men reboot, was a bomb both critically and commercially. In another case of absolutely needless whitewashing, Bobby de Costa (AKA Sunspot) went from an Afro-Brazilian comic book character to a just-Brazilian movie character played by Henry Zaga.
- The Jazz Singer (1927 and 1980)
The 1927 version of The Jazz Singer is notable primarily as the first motion picture to use synchronized sound, with Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz proclaiming, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The Jolson version of Jakie dons blackface in the horrifying minstrel tradition. The 1980 remake could have removed the blackface subplot, but the filmmakers doubled down instead. Neil Diamond looks like Greg Brady was left out in the sun for the summer (but it’s the picture of Jolson that will haunt my dreams).
- Imitation of Life
Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life features a storyline about a black mother (Juanita Moore) and her light-skinned daughter (Susan Kohner) who fervently wishes to pass for white. Kohner herself is Mexican, Irish and Austrian. This instance of whitewashing is particularly galling to me because the plot literally hinges on her race.
- The Human Stain
In another “passing” plotline, Anthony Hopkins plays a disgraced former college professor who resigns following an accusation of racism. Turns out, Hopkins’ character is a light-skinned black man who has been passing as a white Jew. The weird thing is, they got the casting right for the younger version of the character: Wentworth Miller, who has African and Jamaican roots on his father’s side.
- Silver Streak
Silver Streak, the 1976 buddy comedy/murder mystery starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, was a critical and commercial hit. The pairing of this duo proved so popular, they would make three more movies together. Yet even this beloved film is not without flaw. In Silver Streak‘s most notorious scene, Wilder’s character needs to disguise his identity; naturally, he does so with face paint and a wildly caricaturish “shuck and jive” routine.
Hud, based on Larry McMurtry’s 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By, is a highly regarded film and the winner of three Academy Awards. One of those Oscars went to Patricia Neal, who won Best Actress for her performance as housekeeper Alma Brown. In the novel, however, the character is a black cook named Halmea, whom Hud rapes. The movie spares us the rape, as Hud assaults Alma (seen below) but is interrupted before he can rape her. Director Martin Ritt asked for the character to be rewritten as a white woman because he didn’t think moviegoers would buy a relationship between a white man and a black woman. In the words of the film’s screenwriters, “Neither American Western film nor American society was quite ready for that back then”.
- The Beguiled
The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s 2017 adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, contains two separate instances of whitewashing: a biracial character named Edwina is portrayed by Coppola’s longtime muse Kirsten Dunst and a black slave named Hattie is excised entirely. In fact, the Civil War-set film essentially erases slavery altogether. When BuzzFeed News asked about her controversial choices, Coppola didn’t help her cause much: “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” I would argue that there are other options besides “brushing over” slavery and pretending it didn’t exist.
- Tropic Thunder
What can I say about Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated performance as method actor Kirk Lazarus that hasn’t already been said? It’s a brilliant performance in a hilarious movie, and the use of blackface is definitely intended to satirize method actors. But is the average movie-goer capable of making that distinction? To make matters worse, in a 2020 interview with renowned racist Joe Rogan, Downey said, “And I thought, ‘Yeah… I’ll do that after Iron Man.’ And then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea; wait a minute.’ Then I thought, ‘Well, hold on, dude, get real here, where is your heart? And my heart is, a), I get to be black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me. The other thing is, I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion—just my opinion.” In the same interview, Downey stated that the movie was a hit with 90% of his black friends; of the other 10%, Downey said, “I can’t disagree with them. But I know where my heart was.”
It’s worth noting that with one exception, these films were all directed by white men. The exception? Sofia Coppola. A white woman. A white woman who is the offspring of Hollywood royalty. An exceedingly privileged white woman. And like most of the filmmakers on this list, Coppola probably had the best of intentions, but good intentions just aren’t good enough anymore. We need to do better, and that starts with owning up to our white privilege, committing ourselves to diversity, and disavowing these harmful depictions of racial stereotypes.
This post is dedicated to Danny, who had a heart full of love and light and hope, and who believed in equality for all. I will treasure and miss you forever, Danny.