NB: This talk was originally given on 5/12/2016 at the EYE Film Museum as an introduction to the film “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) by Spike Lee, as part of the Looking for America: Black Lives on Screen series. You can watch a segment of this talk via this clip.
Note that you may find some of the images used below distressing.
It is difficult to pinpoint the very first moment that blackface was used in the depiction of people of African descent on stage. There is evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks were using face paint to depict theatrical characters of different backgrounds and it is well known that blackface has been used up until quite recently in productions of Verdi’s Othello.
Furthermore, in the UK Morris (or Moorish) dancing continues to be popular in certain rural locations. This tradition, which is said to date back to the Medieval era, arguably depicted the Moor, through the blacking up of the face and so-called “exotic” dancing and costumes. In the image below, you can see former UK Prime Minister David Cameron posing happily with a group of Morris dancers in 2014.
Quite often, when we think about the history of blackface, we immediately think of the American blackface minstrel of the 19th century, which depicted Africans and African Americans on stage accompanied by music. Below you can see TD Rice’s interpretation of a black man for his stage show.
Minstrelsy was like television back then. This is how the average person got to know about enslaved people’s everyday lives. However, these shows made a mockery of the very humanity of people of African descent. Black people were being portrayed as lazy, stupid, filthy, violent, over-sexed, happy to serve, etc. Therefore there was no reason for them to be granted their freedom or equal rights – so the argument went.
It’s no surprise at all that when minstrelsy groups toured Europe, their shows were very popular. And it’s within the context of US minstrel shows and Dutch slavery, that Zwarte Piet was reintroduced into the Sinterklaas festival.
Above, in an illustration printed onto a postcard but originally from the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ by Jan Schenkman, Piet’s image is consistent with portrayals of black servitude in the mid-19th century.
By the end of the 19th century, the popular story book Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog had been released in the UK. The illustrator of the book, Florence Upton, was said to have been heavily influenced by the blackface minstrel shows she had seen as a child.
Minstrelsy complemented the misinformation inherent in European infotainment and advertising. Golden Shred is a type of jam in the UK and the Golliwog was their icon from 1910 to the early 2000s. Banania is a hot chocolate brand and has used a caricature of a Senegalese man as its mascot since the 1920s. This image is still in use today.
And by the mid 20th century, not only was the Golly increasingly prominent in British arts and entertainments – as we can see by his inclusion in various Enid Byton books, Zwarte Piet was being portrayed also in a more minstrelesque way.
However in the early 20th century, it was not only in books and food packaging that these images of black people could be observed.
D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. This film is some serious wish fulfilment but it had dire consequences for black Americans. In the film, black characters are seen preventing whites from voting and also exhibiting anti-social behaviour in public. When one of the characters (a white actor in blackface) attempts to rape a white female character, he is hunted down by the KKK and lynched.
This film basically promoted the idea that black people cannot have equal rights because we’ll take over society and begin brutalising white folks. As a consequence, the release of Birth of a Nation actually led to an increase in lynching for the most trivial of actions. It was basically a way for whites to keep blacks in their place after slavery.
Photographs of real lynchings of black people, would have been printed on postcards and in local newspapers following the murder of a black individual, or as in this case, groups of blacks. This circulation of imagery of dead bodies, essentially informed the American public that the lynching they had seen in The Birth of a Nation could happen in real life, and was perfectly justifiable. It acted as encouragement for whites and a warning for blacks.
The very first Hollywood film to feature sound was The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jonson, who sang jazz songs in blackface. Indeed, in the 1920s black actors such as Josephine Baker would themselves also wear blackface. Eventually, blackface in film and on stage in the US became less and less tasteful due to the work of groups such as the NAACP. However, the same stereotypes of black people – as witnessed throughout the minstrelsy period – were omnipresent within cinema.
Popular characters between the 1930s and 1940s included Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and of course, Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel won an Academy award for her role. While this was an incredible moment for McDaniel, as she was the first black American to win an academy award, she won it for her convincing portrayal of the happy servant.
This stereotype in particular was pervasive during the period. In cartoons, the behaviour of a character was completed with exaggerated facial features reminiscent of the blackface era. The above character from Disney’s Fantasia, was removed when the film was reissued in 2000.
Having said this, the above characters were kept in the film.
This version of black womanhood – the hypersexualised, exotic, plaything – continues to be common in various forms of media to this day (such as music videos, reality TV, soap operas). In the Netherlands, the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (2012) became infamous for its derogatory portrayals of black women, black female sexuality and black motherhood. Instead of offering actors of colour an opportunity to appear in a mainstream film, it contributed to existing negative and harmful ideas about life in Amsterdam Zuid Oost.
The black maid or the irresponsible and abusive black mother is also still a commonly rewarded role for black actresses according to Hollywood standards, which is clear when examining all of the actresses of African descent who have won an Academy Award so far (see below).
Furthermore, the troubling depictions of Zwarte Piet are still shown on television in the Netherlands. As for the UK, blackface should have stopped with the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show in the late 1970s. But it reappeared as recently as 2006 in Little Britain. And all over the world, so-called slapstick comedy sketches in film and on TV portray people of colour as good for nothing morons. All in the name of fun, right?
US, Dutch and British blackface traditions are being used, even in 2016 to establish socio-political barriers that threaten the rights of non-white citizens and promote white supremacy. When Trump won the US election with his discourse of hate and racism, people celebrated with blackface. Dutch police brutalise protestors for their attempts to remove a blackface character – which explicitly mocks the victims of the Dutch slave-trade and their descendents. After voting to leave the EU, certain UK citizens believed Britain would become a white country again, using the “wog” character to illustrate this desire.
This obsession with white dominance can be directly linked to images and narratives we’re exposed to from a young age – be that in history books or in films. Mainstream film critics praised 12 Years a Slave, and overlooked Amma Asante’s Belle (based on the life of the very real Dido Elizabeth Belle) because they’re more comfortable with the notion that a black women’s place in history is firmly routed in slavery, not Georgian aristocracy.
Melvin van Peeples, who directed Watermelon Man (1970) – the film in the intro clip that employed whiteface – also wrote and narrated the documentary “Classified X” (1998). This is what he has to say in the documentary, about black characters in US cinema:
“The coloured folks in the movies were always quaking and “Yassir” bossing and shuffling. They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working black folks, strutting around the South Side of Chicago where I was from.”
He goes on to say that:
“Black movies, made by African American filmmakers, were extremely popular with black audiences, tired of seeing themselves portrayed as slaves, servants, mammies and dumb bucks.”
For a more detailed history of racism in US cinema, you can see the full documentary here:
My favourite filmmaker right now is Ava DuVernay. Her work consistently puts black resistance to racial inequality at the centre of the narrative, striving to depict human experiences that are relatable to black audiences. DuVernay’s characters do laugh, dance and sing but they also fight, argue eloquently, teach and learn.
To conclude, I’d like to come back to Spike Lee. The first film I saw by Lee was Malcolm X. This film really changed me. Everything I’d been taught about the various black nationalist movements that took shape in the US throughout the 20th century was challenged. The film educates its audiences about the life and work of Malcolm X by humanising him and his experiences. He is neither glorified nor vilified, and the importance of his legacy is at the centre of the narrative.
When we think of the rest of his filmography, part of Lee’s genius is the nuance in his satire. I’ll let you all decide for yourselves what Lee is trying to say with She’s Gotta Have It, which was his first feature length film. But it is clear, from films such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled – while his humour might seem like a form of crass self-deprecation, the simple fact is this: you need to understand the very real history of the stereotypes on the screen, to understand the criticism inherent in Lee’s storytelling.
Lee has no time to break it down for those who don’t know better; his unapologetic concern is to speak to the folks already living what he is showing.
“Black lives on screen” is more than mere entertainment. It’s a reflection of reality. And who’s reality we’re talking about is a very important matter indeed.