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Blackface is the tradition of a performer putting on stylized black makeup to appear as a stereotyped character of African descent. Blackface performances often took the form of Minstrel Shows. As much as some people would like to forget it, blackface performances were mainstream American entertainment for almost 100 years until racial backlash finally capsized them. Blackface imagery was also transported to other countries, where the lesser stigma against it allowed the tradition to prosper for longer. Blackface characters still pop up in Japanese culture from time to time.
Due to sensitivity over this issue, particularly in America, any attempt by a non-black actor to play a black character will usually be labled by someone as outright blackface, even when it's really just a Fake Nationality. Yellowface is a similar practice involving East Asian characters and Brownface for brown-skinned characters.
Tropes associated with Blackface:
- Ash Face: Older animated works would often segue from an Ash Face incident to a Blackface gag.
- Big Lipped Alligator Moment: (A rather unfortunately named trope for this page.) A common trope of early cinema was to find some excuse for the main character to intentionally or accidentally take on the appearance of blackface, then pause for a minstrel show-style musical number.
- Dead Horse Trope: Blackface never appears in modern mainstream media played straight. If it shows up at all, it's for Black Comedy or satirical purposes, or it comes from a country where it's not as taboo. Of course, racists still cling to it for warmth.
- Older Than They Think: The tradition of blackface extends hundreds of years before its rise in popularity in America.
- Old Shame: In its heyday, blackface was a major part of America's distinct artistic culture. Today it's treated as an embarrassing episode in American history. Many beloved film and cartoon characters appeared in blackface in the early days of film and animation, when the trope was still mainstream. The companies who now own these intellectual properties are understandably reluctant to air them out.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Often when blackface cropped up in old cartoons and slapstick it was being used as a disguise. This was seen as no more wrong than having the character cross-dress at the time.
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: The modern-day successor to blackface. A white person "acts black." This differs from Blackface in that the white person is well-intentioned, usually trying to compliment black people rather than mock them. However, this can still be seen as insulting.
- Values Dissonance: Blackface was once considered (by white people) as harmless good fun, but appearing in blackface today is about as acceptable as a burning cross.
- Zeroth Law of Trope Examples: The eponymous role in Othello was traditionally played by a white actor in blackface, and this remained the case long after blackface had become unacceptable in most media. Shakespeare himself at least had the excuse of black actors being in rather short supply in England at the time.
Works in which Blackface appears:
- Spike Lee's Bamboozled: A modern African-American filmmaker creates a television minstrel show in which black actors perform in classic blackface. He's trying to make a point, but to his horror, the show becomes successful. Real-life audiences didn't respond well to the use of blackface in making a heavy-handed point about modern portrayals of black people.
- Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer features the main character performing in blackface in a minstrel show as part of his journey to self-expression. Ironically, Jolson's character can only express himself by putting on the mask of a black man. This was also semi-biographical, as Al Jolson really did perform in blackface and felt a special kinship with African-Americans. He actually helped a lot of blacks break into the music business, demanded that they receive equal treatment, and was famously the only white man allowed in the all-black nightclubs in Harlem.
- Gangs of New York features a propogandized performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which actors playing parts of slaves wear blackface.
- Fred Astaire does a blackface number in Swing Time (1936). Many fans regard this as more of an "Othello" than a "minstrel show" situation, as it was an homage to a specific black performer (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson).
- In the 1936 film version of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, Magnolia and the show boat troupe don blackface for the "Gallivantin' Around" number. Since one of the themes of this musical is the destructive nature of race prejudice, this may be deliberate irony -- or it may just be a lamentable lapse of taste.
- In Whoopee!, Eddie Cantor tries to pass himself off as a black man, performing a pretty racist shuffling darky routine, then belts out a performance of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" in his classic singing style. Eddie Cantor was the last major vaudeville performer to use blackface in his act, and his character was Fair for Its Day - an intelligent, in fact nerdy character, as opposed to the "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginee" standard.
- The Three Stooges disguised themselves as slaves using blackface in the Civil War-themed short "Uncivil Warbirds".
- Laurel and Hardy disguised themselves in blackface after breaking out of prison in Pardon Us.
- The Marx Brothers, evading the law, momentarily done blackface to hide among a bunch of stable hands in A Day at the Races. Harpo only paints half his face.
- The Birth of a Nation used blackface not as a comedic device, but as a means to allow white actors to portray black and "mullato" characters in an overtly racist film.
- The Eighties comedy Soul Man features a Harvard Law student using blackface to get a scholarship for black students. The film caused some controversy during its release.
- In the Polish film Vabank, set in 1930s' Poland, one of the protagonists, Moks, at one point sings in blackface.
- In Bob Dylan's film Masked and Anonymous, Ed Harris appears as the ghost of a murdered minstrel named Oscar Vogel, very much in the Al Jolson mode. Dylan has invoked minstrelsy on other occasions, notably naming his 2001 album Love and Theft after Eric Lott's academic book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
- Lampshaded/parodied in Tropic Thunder--Robert Downey Jr.'s white Australian character Kirk Lazarus portrays black Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, but as he takes himself very, very seriously as an actor, his "blackface" makeup is not exaggerated and stereotypical, it's highly accurate and believable. His character's personality, however, is embarrassingly over-the-top, and he stays in character at all times, much to the chagrin of the actually-black Alpa Chino. The fact that the whole thing is meant to be a parody of Oscar Bait and extreme Method Acting went over the heads of some critics and viewers, who claimed it was racist for Downey to play a black guy.
- Pops up, of course, in CSA: Confederate States of America.
- The Paper-Thin Disguise variant shows up in Silver Streak. Con man Richard Pryor helps to disguise traveler Gene Wilder, who's been framed for murder. (Presumably it helps that Wilder has naturally curly hair.) Hearing Wilder's clueless Soul Brother patter, Pryor says, "I sure hope we don't run into any brothers."
- Trading Places also uses it as a Paper-Thin Disguise for Dan Aykroyd in the scene on the train. The others with him are also in disguise/costume, but their target for a theft has met Aykroyd's character before, necessitating something more...brown shoe polish.
- The white voice actors of Amos N Andy appear in blackface in their sole feature film Check and Double Check. The comedy duo was at the height of their fame, but fans were apparently disappointed to see their favorite radio characters looking like white guys in blackface. The film was not a success.
- An interesting example is found with Tommy Chong as the blues singer Blind Melon Chitlin' in Still Smokin: the humor is not based around the character being black, but being blind.
- This is how the villain of The Zebra Killer disguised himself while committing murders.
- Inverted in White Chicks in which Shawn and Marlon Wayans play two detectives who disguise themselves as white women.
- In South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Cartman briefly appears wearing blackface during his performance of "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch."
- In The Last Emperor, the deposed Emperor Pu-yi performs a concert backed up by Chinese musicians in blackface.
- The Mad Men season 3 episode "My Old Kentucky Home" features Roger Sterling in blackface, singing the title song to his new, twenty-something wife. Some of the characters are horrified, but more about a respectable businessman making an ass of himself than moral indignation over the racial insensitivity.
- Lampshaded in Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, when the gang decide to do a sequel to Lethal Weapon with both Mac and Dennis playing Murtaugh. Dennis refuses to be in blackface, but has no problem doing a "black voice." Mac dons full shoe polish and tries to retroactively use Laurence Olivier as justification. Nobody remarks on the fact that Frank spends the entire movie playing a villainous Native American stereotype.
- In Australia, The Footy Show memorably did this one time when Indigenous player Nicky Winmar was unable to appear, and the show was speculating what happened to him. Well on the final segment of the show host Eddie McGuire was going to review the teams for Freemantle and West Coast when the audience starts laughing. He twigs that Sam Newman has done something and is almost scared to look at Sam impersonating Winmar wearing black facepaint. Despite the cries of outrage over the incident Winmar had the last laugh. One year later, there would be a knock at the guest door after Sam laments they never had that anymore. He gets up to answer it to reveal Winmar, all smiles, apologizing for being a year late.
- In another Australian incident, an act called "The Jackson Jive" appeared on Hey Hey, It's Saturday, a variety show, shortly after Michael Jackson's death. Five men, doctors in everyday life, danced in blackface and afro wigs, while a sixth, dressed as Michael, replete with ghost-white makeup, sang "Can You Feel It." American guest judge Harry Connick Jr. was understandably offended. The host apologized to Connick on air. Chalk it up to cultural differences - Australian media has historically never used blackface in the same way the US did. Also the Jackson Jive are all decidedly not white.
- In the Polish comedy series Alternatywy 4 (1983), one character was a black American exchange student named Abraham Lincoln, played by a white man wearing blackface. Poles attempted to justify the portrayal due to the relative lack of black people in Poland at the time.
- In a Halloween episode of the Irish video-diary sitcom Dan and Becs, the main characters plan to go to a party in fancy dress as a couple. Due to a miscommunication, Bec thinks they're going as Richard Gere and Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman and dresses accordingly. Dan thinks they're going as... Ike and Tina Turner. They give their diary entries on the night, still in costume, Dan still covered in blackface.
- According to The Goodies, their ancestors were cruelly kidnapped by the BBC and forced into blackface. They eventually fought for equal rights, no matter what colour paint, be it black, white, green, polka-dot. The episode was actually labelled: DO NOT BROADCAST - RACIST in the BBC archive. The Goodies also appear in blackface in the South Africa and Eckythump episodes.
- In Jeeves and Wooster, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves both disguise themselves in as part of a troupe of blackface minstrels in order to escape J. Washburn Stoker, father of Pauline, the girl in of Bertie's ill-fated engagements. The minstrels were there as part of Stoker's son's birthday party. Wooster ends up having to perform Lady of Spain in blackface with the minstrels before being able to escape. Later the butler, Cedric, (In the Fry version, the Harley St. doctor Sir Roderick Glossop) has to dress up in blackface to entertain a young boy who was promised that he could see the minstrels at Stoker's son's birthday party, but is unable to go in the confusion. A strange example as it is played relatively straight in the "harmless fun" way, despite having been first aired in 1990 -- Bertie really does perform as part of a minstrel troupe and then nobody ever mentions it again. Then again, it's set in the 1920s, so would have been considered acceptable at the time, which might have been why it was acceptable in Jeeves and Wooster.
- The Sarah Silverman Show played with this. Sarah argued with a black man that being Jewish is harder than being black, and the two agreed to go through one day as the other ethnicity for a day to test it. Sarah dressed up in a horribly stereotypical and offensive way, receiving very unpleasant remarks, thinking they actually thought she was black and their responses were genuine racism. When she met the man in the usual spot she and the gang get their coffee and said that she agreed that being black was harder, the black man said he realised being Jewish was actually harder. He was wearing a yarmukle, peot, a long false nose, and a shirt saying ‘I <3 Money’. The man left the place as the two exchanged suspicious looks.
- The Python crew occasionally donned blackface to play Indian or black roles for Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches.
- In an episode of The Mighty Boosh, Julian Barret plays "Rudy," a partially two-dimensional guitarist/sage with an appearance resembling Jimi Hendrix. Barret wears blackface as well as fake teeth to make him appear to be gap-toothed. He also has a large fake afro with a door to another dimension. In another episode, Rudy is fully three-dimensional and is no longer blackface, though he does retain his magic afro.
- Are You Being Served.
- Mr. Grainger does himself up in blackface to perform "Mammy" in the B-plot of an episode. Ultimately, this rolls back into the main plot: In order to replace a malfunctioning animatronic Santa, the Men's and Lady's Wear staffers are auditioning for the role (and its extra pay). Grainger doesn't have time to remove the blackface before the audition... which makes him more attractive to the child brought in to select who'll get the role. The kid is black.
- Another episode has the staff performing a minstrel number, in blackface, to celebrate Old Mr Grace's supposed African heritage. As you can see on his face at the end of the show as his staff is strutting about in blackface, he is horrified at this spectacle.
- Seen in the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire (which takes place in the 1920s) during the New Year's celebration.
- Parodied by Spitting Image in "The White & White Minstrel Show" that features the polar opposite of this trope: black people wearing whitefaces. The sketch itself is a bitting satire of the apartheid in South Africa where they think "that blackfaces don't belong with black".
- The Mitchell Minstrel Troupe had a prime-time slot on the BBC (The Black-And-White Minstrel Show) well into the 1970s - 78-9, I think, they did away with it at last [The Mitchell Minstrels continued to perform on stage into the 1990s].
- Scrubs has a flashback to an incident where Turk convinced JD to wear blackface (where Turk himself would be wearing whiteface) while they met with some friends of Turk's. Turk ends up being distracted at an inopportune moment, meaning that JD seems to be alone when the guys see him. It does not end well.
- The former page image from Community actually does not represent a straight example. Being the one semi-member of the study group with Dungeons and Dragons experience, Chang dresses up as his Drow character. Both Shirley and Pierce think he's in Blackface, however.
- In an episode of Gimme A Break, Samantha dresses Joey up in blackface to perform at Nell's church. Hilarity does not ensue.
- In the All in The Family episode "Birth of the Baby", Archie is forced by his lodge to appear in blackface in a minstrel show. Right before he's supposed to go onstage, he's informed that his daughter has gone into labor, so he ends up in the hospital in blackface.
- Played for Laughs in an episode of Soap when the Major, Chester, and Donahue are in blackface in preparation for a night raid on the Sunnies church/bunker along with Benson in order to rescue Billy. (The blackface in this case is an ordinary stealth technique so as not to be easily seen.) As they're planning, Jessica comes in and apologizes for interrupting Benson's reunion with his family. After they explain that they're them, Jessica asks why they're dressed as 'Negros.' During the raid they get caught, and Benson covers for them by saying they're the Step Brothers, and leads the others in a dance "audition."
- 30 Rock's Jenna Maroney has appeared in blackface twice. The first time, not unlike the The Sarah Silverman Show example, arose from an argument with Tracy Jordan about whether it is harder to be black or a woman. The second occurred when Jenna dressed as Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann while her crossdressing boyfriend dressed as Natalie Portman in Black Swan making them ...two black swans.
- When Fred Armisen started playing Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live, a minor stink was raised about whether it constituted blackface. The issue died out after it was argued that Fred Armisen and Barack Obama are both mixed race and the fact that they're not the same mix just makes it a standard case of Fake Nationality. Plus the darkening of Armisen's skin looks like the spray tan it probably is, and most people aren't offended by spray tans.
- In the pilot episode of Lifes Too Short, Warwick watches a performance of "Ebony and Ivory" performed by two dwarfs, one of whom is a woman in blackface. Warwick says that he's pretty sure you can't "black up" these days, but "maybe in the North."
- Billy Crystal sparked some very minor controversy when he appeared as Sammy Davis Jr. during his intro to the 84th Academy Award presentation. Crystal used realistic makeup to resemble Davis, not the stylized makeup traditionally used for racist depictions. Crystal had been doing Davis impressions for years, including his time on Saturday Night Live, and his daughter says he received her father's blessing.
- It's implied Barney once used this on How I Met Your Mother. He mentions that the worst lie he ever told to get a woman into bed (and that is a very competitive category) was when he used a seduction technique called "The Soul Man". We're not told the details of what it involved, but he used it to hook up with a woman who would only date black guys, and he did it while going by the alias "Barnell".
- Inverted in Chappelle's Show in sketches where the black host Dave Chappelle lightens his skin and plays a stereotypical white man.
- The Goodies mocks The Apartheid Era racists by showing how horrified they are of blackface performers: white people imitating black people.
- An entire genre of music, the "coon song" was dedicated to mocking black people, sung by performers in blackface. Paradoxically, such songs were often written by African American composers such as Ernest Hogan, Sam Lucas, and Bob Cole. The genre was a precursor to ragtime and was eventually replaced by it. Note that in popular usage, "coon song" was often applied to music sung, originating from, or merely in the style of, Negro music, without regard to content. One who sang Negro songs was a "coon shouter."
- Appears rather shockingly in the video for Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" as Boy George is convicted by a jury of jazz-handing minstrels.
- Florence and the Machine's song "No Light, No Light", which is very recent, has two savage people in blackface menacing the white singer, who is saved by white choirboys and seen at the end with a white lover. Supposedly, the men in blackface are meant to be demons.
- One Retraux sketch by The Two Ronnies has Ronnie Barker playing "Al Vermont", a singer who performs in blackface.
- Most black vaudevillians wore blackface. Some were light enough that they needed to put on burnt cork to make it clear to the audience; others just bowed to vaudeville standards.
- Popular vaudeville actor Bert Williams often performed in blackface. As he gained more success, his works phased out the extreme racial humor. His popularity among white and black audiences ultimately made him a force for increased racial tolerance.
- Bill Robinson was among the first black performers to make it big without blackface.
- Many opera roles, such as Otello in Verdi's opera, and Monostatos in The Magic Flute have been portrayed in blackface. There is still a shortage of black opera singers, but white singers playing these roles no longer black up.
- Similarily, the title character in Shakespeare's Othello was traditionally played by a while actor in makeup. It wasn't until 1943 that a black actor played the role in a major stage production of the play, but the success of that production didn't stop the common practice of using blackface to last well through the 60s.
- Referenced in the play No Sugar, which revolves around a family of Australian aborigines in the 1930s. In one scene, they recall a recent trip to the cinema, where they saw an American film with a blackface performer, who they joke must have been having a really rough time as a whitefella if he saw becoming black as a step up.
- "Golliwogg" dolls are dolls made in the style of a person in blackface. They can still be purchased in some areas.
- Jynx in Pokémon was originally designed after this aesthetic before its coloring was changed to purple due to complaints. It is sometimes claimed to have been designed after the "ganguro" style, though it was only just beginning to come to prominence in Japan at the time. A more likely candidate is the European Zwarte Piet holiday character mentioned below, considering its Ice typing and appearance as Santa's helpers in the anime.
- The turtle shell in Doki Doki Panic has a blackface appearance.
- Kingdom of Loathing features a status effect called Black Face, which raises your Muscle stat and damage, but lowers your combat initiative. The effect description simply reads: "Yeah, we went there."
- Unintentionally occurs with Passionate Patti in Leisure Suit Larry 5 due to a malfunctioning copy machine.
- An extremely unfortunate example occurs in Square's NES adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, released only in Japan. The caricature used for Jim would almost be cause for Torches and Pitchforks in the U.S.
- One of Xenoblade's main antagonists is actually named Blackface, though he's actually kind of an inversion, being a black and gold, baroque-looking robot with a sinister white mask. Nonetheless his name was changed to Metalface in the English version for fear of the name's nasty associations.
- Looney Tunes characters such as Bugs Bunny would often get soot blown in their faces, causing them to spontaneously parody The Jazz Singer.
- Appeared in quite a few of the early Tom and Jerry shorts as well. When re-aired these scenes tend to be edited out, and a couple shorts which can't be easily edited have been all-out banned and don't even appear on the DVDs.
- Really, nearly every studio during The Golden Age of Animation did this as a gag at some point. At least one Terry Toons short has done this, as seen on Jerry Beck's site.
- South Park riffs on this trope in "Summer Sucks." The town gets covered in ashes, causing all the ash-covered residents to look like they're in blackface. Needless to say, Chef, the resident black man who'd just returned from his vacation, isn't pleased.
- Parodied on Family Guy in season 9, when Chris wanted to dress up as Bill Cosby for Halloween, using blackface as well as his trademark sweater. His mother tried telling him it’s wrong, but Chris just said, ‘Why, don’t I look like him?’ His mother agreed that he did, but then said, ‘You can’t just go out on the street in blackface, it’s racist! Now go put on that Indian head gear I bought you!’
- The book Kaboom! Explosive Animation from America and Japan mentions that "Even today, the question can be legitimately asked: How much of Mickey Mouse is mouse, and how much is blackface clown?"
- The Little Mermaid contains a one-off blink-and-you'll-miss-it blackface gag with the blackfish in "Under The Sea." This wouldn't be racist if the blackfish was actually black, but as it isn't...
- This happens in The Philippines, particularly in the Visayas every January, when the native brown people smear their bodies with black coal to celebrate a feast with the indigenous black minority, with a help of a miracle from a memento from the Spaniards that helped develop a culture.
- A Japanese earthquake safety pamphlet passed out as late as 2004 featured a cartoon "sambo" character with a blackface appearance. After some complaints, the pamphlet was redrawn.
- The helpers of Sinterklaas (the Dutch Santa Claus) are usually white people in blackface and colourful costumes called Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete").