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March 02, 2008

SNL's Fauxbama Blackface Thing

Hyphen, as usual, is where I picked up on the public controversy about a non-black multiracial actor playing Obama on Saturday Night Live. (Video above is the second sketch featuring "Fauxbama" Fred Armisen; Hyphen has the first one.)

I saw the previous clip on the SNL site (can't find it now but it's embedded in the Hyphen post above), led there by a discussion about media bias towards Obama, and noticed immediately that the actor playing Obama was wearing dark makeup for the role. My first reaction was, "Oh, boyyyyy ..."

But then, as the sketch played out, I stopped being concerned about it. Why? Why would I be concerned about it in the first place, and why would I stop being concerned after watching the sketch?

It has to do with the nature of "blackface" (or any dramatic portrayal of people of color by white actors). This requires one of my beloved, bullet-pointed breakdowns. Blackface is problematic for reasons historical, intentional, and representational:

  • Historical: blackface was used in minstrel shows and later in blackface sketches in more mainstream vaudeville to humorously denigrate African Americans. Blackface performances found their humor in depicting the worst stereotypes of African Americans. Blackface became most popular during Reconstruction, when the "threat" of black equality was most strongly juxtaposed with a formerly slave culture, and arose out of that racist fear. But these representations have found expression in every era of American entertainment since long before the Revolutionary War.

The length and persistence of this form of racial denigration means that any performance by a non-black of a black character or figure automatically draws on this history, intentionally or unintentionally, and is to be considered carefully if not fully avoided.

  • Intentional: As mentioned above, the main purpose of blackface is to denigrate blacks using humorous depictions of stereotypes.

The other big problem with blackface, after the outright racial denigration that is its purpose, is that it is the incongruity of the makeup on a white actor that creates the humor. Blackface assumes that the racial phenotype it lampoons (dark skin, big lips, kinky hair) is unattractive and ridiculous, and draws its humor from the overposition of exaggerated or imaginary "black" features on white features. It's clown makeup, with the strong implication that blacks are clowns.

  • Representational: a contemporary issue with blackface is the issue of who gets to play black roles in media. There are few enough roles specifically written for African American characters, and few enough casting directors willing to go for nontraditional casting in ethnic-non-specific roles. On top of this, many of the roles written specifically for African American characters are stereotyped and in themselves denigrating.

So having a plum role for an African American character parceled out to a non-black actor is extremely problematic, when there are so many qualified black actors out there looking for work.

Additionally, the very idea that a white actor gets to occupy a plum black role raises the question of who gets to write, embody, and ultimately determine the form and representation of blacks in the public sphere. Casting a white actor is a pretty clear answer in favor of keeping the right of representation with whites.

So, how does the SNL sketch play with these considerations?

Firstly, the sketch does not have racial denigration as its purpose, and there is no unintentional or side-effect racial denigration (in my opinion) happening here. The purpose of the sketch is to lampoon the media's apparent infatuation with Barack Obama; the actor playing Obama needs to exaggerate Obama's personal tics for humorous effect (as SNL does with every politician it mocks) and to portray a stereotype of Obama's public image.  There is complicated racial coding involved in Obama's public image, but this sketch is fairly straightforward, and does not grapple with them, nor (in my opinion) trip over them.

Secondly, the makeup Armisen uses to portray Obama is fairly subtle and clearly used to let the audience know what figure he's depicting, and not to portray Obama's racial characteristics as unattractive or ridiculous

So far so good. On the minus side, however, is the simple fact of the history of blackface and the way that blackface representation is going to play--no matter what its intentions. Putting a nonblack actor in blackface is so easy to avoid, that producers simply cannot avoid the question, "why didn't you just get a black actor to do it?" SNL doesn't have a slick answer for this.

The real answer, of course, is that currently, SNL has only one black male actor, and he looks nothing like Obama and, more importantly, has an acting style that doesn't match Obama's affect well. But that's not an excuse. SNL currently has six white male actors, two white female actors, and two multiracial actors, Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph (the latter of whom is the only actor on the cast whose racial background matches Obama's and who apparently will not return to SNL after the strike.)

Why so many white men? Why so few black men and women? Among other things, it limits (obviously) SNL's ability to successfully represent public figures, and this tokenism is a perennial problem at SNL, which has six different faces to match to white male public figures, but must force black characters into the oeuvre of a single actor. This gets to the heart of the representation issue. Lorne Michaels has tried to play that old chestnut: we cast the best actor for the role, regardless of race. And Armisen does do a credible acting job. But that old record won't play. If you have only one black actor, he's certainly not going to be the best actor for every black role. Some other black actor would be.

But all of this is, again, avoiding the fact that Obama is multiracial. Just because America views Obama as black, doesn't mean he entirely is. And he's toned down his self-representation as biracial because he found it didn't play with either white or black. That doesn't mean he isn't still biracial. So who gets to depict a man who is half white? If they had cast Kenan Thompson as Obama, would he have had to do it in whiteface and would that have been alright?

Add to all of this that Fred Armisen, who actually played Obama, is an extremely multiracial man, part white, part Asian (Japanese) and part Latino (Venezuelan). And it seems I do need to remind people that Latinos are pretty multiracial--and African-mixed--as well, and that Venezuela especially, as a nation on the Caribbean coast, has a strong Afro-Caribbean history and population. That doesn't tell us anything about Armisen himself, but it does tell us a great deal about our own simple-minded, reductivist racial viewpoint.

So the representation piece of this little controversy? I'd say SNL needs to check itself, but so do the sketch's racially simplistic critics. And I'd say that SNL does still need to go ahead with its mockery of the current presidential candidates using the tools at hand, and learn from this controversy that maybe it would be a more interesting show with a less monochromatic cast.

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