Entertain or Ignorance?: A History of Blackface in Film

Apparently Halloween is the day that people decide to actively unmask their ignorance. From Julianne Hough dressing up as Crazy Eyes from Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black to a handful of people dressing up as Trayvon Martin to Italian fashion designer Alessandro Dell’acqua donning blackface for a “Hallohood Disco Africa” themed Halloween party. Some argue that it’s just a Halloween costume and should be seen as entertaining. While others argue that the history behind the meaning is anything but fun and games. Although everyone is not offended or up in arms about people in blackface, those who choose to wear blackface should be prepared for the backlash and expect to suffer the consequences for thinking that it is okay to do so. When I see people wearing blackface, I always wonder if they know the history behind it.


                                                        (photo credit: Eonline)



                                                    (photo credit: The Daily Dot)



                                              (photo credit: The Daily Dot)



                                                (photo credit: Fashion Bomb Daily) 



Blackface was used in minstrel shows in the early 19th century to contribute to the stereotypical images placed upon African Americans on plantations. In order to achieve the blackface look, white actors use burnt cork, greasepaint, or shoe polish to darken their skin, exaggerate their lips with bright lipstick, put on woolly wigs, tailcoats or tattered clothing, and gloves. These images crossed the oceans as numerous nations picked up on them and transcended mediums from theater to film, and dance. 




                                              (photo credit: Library of Congress)


  1. Birth of a Nation (1915)- This three hour long silent film by director D.W. Griffith was adapted from the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. The film is about two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. White actors in blackface fought against the Klan who protected the “Aryan” cause. The film was a commercial success and a recent article in the New Yorker states that the film “proved horrifically effective at sparking violence against blacks in many cities.”


                                        (Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archives)


2. The Jazz Singer (1927)- The film follows Jakie Rabinowitz played by Al Jolson who rejects his Jewish heritage to pursue his dreams of being a popular jazz singer. While rejecting his Jewish heritage, he embraces blackface. The film was well received by black and white critics. 


                                               (photo credit: Hulton Archive)

3. Swing Time (1936)-  Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the film is inspired by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Astaire donned blackface for the musical number "Bojangles in Harlem."  It is praised as being the best dance musical Astaire and Rogers.    


                                            (photo credit: RKO Radio Pictures)

4. Everybody Sing (1938)-  An aspiring young singer who is on the verge of being shipped out of England due to her troublesome jazz singing. She decides to escape, and pretends to be black during an audition.


                                   (photo credit: Silverscreen Collection/Getty Image)

5. Soul Man (1986)-  Basically a white college student decides to disguise himself as a black man in order to receive a scholarship from Harvard Law School. 


                                        (photo credit: New World Pictures)

6. Bamboozled (2000)- This Spike Lee film stars Damon Wayans and Jada Pinkett Smith. Wayans plays a Harvard educated television writer who decides to purposefully create a minstrel show starring blacks in blackface in hopes of getting fired. What he did not expect was the outpouring of support of the show from audiences and the network. 


                                         (Film trailer credit: New Line Cinema)


Here is a montage on the history of blackface and Minstrelsy from the film Bamboozled.


                                            (film credit: New Line Cinema)

Bottom Line- Blackface is not okay and ignorance is not bliss.  


                    (photo credit: Ohio University's Students Teaching Against Racism STARS)

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