by Jordan Simon | Shadow and Act
With Halloween approaching, now is a great time to remind what kinds of costumes are inappropriate and downright unacceptable. In the words of Dear White People‘s Sam Logan, a list of acceptable costumes includes “pirates, nurses and any of our first 43 presidents.” Among the list of unacceptable costumes includes Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and, of course, the cardinal sin of Halloween costumes: blackface. For those who are open-minded enough and committed to understanding blackface’s abhorrent history on stage and film, here is a crash course:
Blackface minstrelsy was a practice that involved shows performed by Caucasian actors who donned black paint to portray Black people. It is regarded by many to be the first form of theatrical entertainment that originated in America. The reason why it is considered problematic and downright racist is that these shows falsely and egregiously characterized Black people as buffoonish. In other words, Caucasian actors impersonating how they believe Black people speak and behave, all derived from their internalized racist biases.
Blackface minstrel shows were developed in the 19th century and experienced popularity during the 1830s. Their origins on stage would eventually carry over into film, with the first notable example of blackface appearing in D.W. Griffith ‘s racist motion picture The Birth of a Nation. The silent epic, released in 1915, is infamous for its depictions of its Black characters (white men in blackface) and its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, who were portrayed as the film’s protagonists. More than a decade later, the musical The Jazz Singer showcased actor Al Jolson, who dons blackface in a quest to fulfill his dreams of becoming a jazz singer. In the decades that followed, we would see more examples of blackface in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s to even more recent cases such as Trading Places, Soul Man and Tropic Thunder.
An egregious and recent example of blackface took place in 2012 when Zoe Saldana was tapped to play soul singer Nina Simone in a musical biopic. The casting drew justifiable backlash in large part because many felt the role of Simone, who was a dark-skinned African American woman, should have been given to a dark-skinned African American actress. Photos eventually surfaced of Saldana, an Afro-Latina woman with a fair-skinned complexion, donning Blackface and facial prosthetics. Blackface not only perpetuates the gross practice of depicting Black people as caricatures but, in Saldana’s case, the erasure or invisibility of darker skinned Black individuals.