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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gunga Din and Blackface Today

posted by on May 26 at 18:26 PM

I attended the first show in the Swashbuckler Saturdays program at SIFF, and—as a side note—the projection problems that plagued the Egyptian last year are back. No fire this time, but the film went out of focus at the first punch and the projectionist didn’t notice until the brawlers had straightened their uniforms and shuffled off to the next scene. Way to dampen the swashbuckling, dude.

The show was Gunga Din, a 1939 George Stevens action-adventure film, and one of those archival presentations that really could’ve used a scholarly introduction. The movie is still relatively entertaining, but it can be hard to get into the fight scenes when you’re having second thoughts about all that Jewish-to-Indian blackface…


… not to mention the cheery British imperialism, homosocial misogyny, California mountain ranges, and Yank accents peppered with probably ahistorical British slang. That post-lashing Cary Grant lounging about with his shirt calculatedly unbuttoned was also distracting.

But the rampant blackface in Gunga Dinwhich pretty much anybody would recognize as objectionable today—also reminded me of the new Michael Winterbottom film A Mighty Heart, which I saw earlier this week. Here’s Angelina Jolie as the French-Cuban wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl:


Her skin is clearly pigmented, she wears dark contacts, and the wig is Africanized too. Now, the character she plays in the film is more a caricature of Jolie herself than any stereotype one might have about persons of Cuban ancestry raised in Paris. She spends most of the movie being very pregnant, playing with adorable children of other nationalities, and worrying about her man. In that sense, her blackface get-up is in no way comparable to the abject character of Gunga Din, a childlike would-be soldier more loyal to the Queen of England than any of his darker-skinned countrymen.

But Jolie was undoubtedly cast in the role of Mariane Pearl because the producers needed a star, and there are no French-Cuban actresses of equal stature wandering around Hollywood. Why else was Sam Jaffe cast as Gunga Din?

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(The projection was awful yesterday as well. At least two reel changes were missed at the midnight. So irritating.)

Posted by jaci | May 26, 2007 7:50 PM

Editorial help needed w/ this blog entry.

Posted by tint ballerina | May 26, 2007 7:52 PM

Or maybe she was cast (love the passive voice) because Brad Pitt, who has been dated by her, had the rights bought by himself, causing him to be the producer.

Posted by bobbo | May 26, 2007 10:52 PM

Here’s Angelina Jolie as the French-Cuban wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl:

Mrs. Pearl is Afro-Cuban and Dutch, raised in France.

Posted by Brian | May 26, 2007 11:19 PM

@2: Indeed. Still, from where I'm standing, this casting benefits the film's bottom line ("no way am I seeing a movie about a journalist getting beheaded--wait, it stars Angelina Jolie?") more than it benefits the wifey. Jolie spends the entire movie looking uncomfortable and detached, and I think plenty of people will have the same misgivings I had about the subtle blackface.

@3: Mmm-kay. I was trying to get the important parts of that across, but maybe I should have gone with Cuban-French?

Posted by annie | May 26, 2007 11:51 PM

Why does this posting remind me of John Byrnes outrage at the casting of Jessica Alba as Susan Storm?

Posted by The Baron | May 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Not to nitpick semantics, because I understand your point--that the use of white actors in the roles of non-white characters is indicative of societal problems--but I'm pretty sure that "blackface" is not the correct word here. Blackface would imply an overt usage of the non-white character's racial stereotypes for cheap laughs. If Jolie's character had been floucing around, chomping cigars and singing odes to Castro or something, one could perhaps apply the term. However, simply casting a white actress, using dark makeup, and then having her act "normally" might be problematic, but it's not blackface.

Posted by Christin | May 27, 2007 8:45 AM

@7: If we're construing the term very strictly, I agree. Hence paragraph 5. But it's still interesting to observe the constantly shifting boundaries of acceptability. This isn't blackface; it merely recalls the specter of blackface.

I will point out—and I recognize this is very abstract and I'm now contradicting myself—that if there's any persistent historical stereotype of black women, it's that they make good substitute mothers.

Posted by annie | May 27, 2007 9:37 AM

And no more straights playing gay. And American's playing British, or women playing men or Colombian's playing Mexican. It's time these people stop the charade and get on with the acting.

Posted by PdxRitchie | May 27, 2007 1:49 PM

No more actors in their late 20s playing high school students. And no more fake boobs playing actresses.

Posted by Smarm | May 27, 2007 3:56 PM

YEAH! and no more actors acting differently than they would in real life. they should not adjust their mannerisms and attitude to suit the movie. no make up at all! and no one can play a different nationality... too many of those Canadian actors playing Americans on tv

/fake outrage at acting (had to get in on that action)

Posted by war pigs | May 27, 2007 6:15 PM

In The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker was made up to match the shade of Idi Amin, which is significantly darker than the shade of Forest Whitaker. Nobody seemed to mind that.

Posted by pox | May 27, 2007 7:20 PM

Umm, not to burst your bubble or anything, but... The reason Jolie is playing the role and not someone who is of correct race/color is because her and Marianne are actually close friends. Marianne had approached Brad about doing the movie before he and Angelina were even together. Later on, the two ladies met and became fast friends. Marianne wanted Angelina to portray her in the movie.

Posted by Faux Show | May 27, 2007 9:49 PM

study after study has proven that slog responders have the reading comprehension skills of a typical second grader, in spite of their adult or near adult vocabularies.

i'm not sure, again, why these responses are so deranged, or why there is such an effort to paint annie's post as vitriolic or over the top when it's clearly very measured.

the doesn't post draw any conclusions about blackface or racism or even how casting should work. she poses a question about how a certain mode of achieving "character" has evolved in this medium and culture over time.

her suggestions about an answer are tentative and very limited. mostly, annie encourages viewers of art to consider the question. instead of consideration it's back to this weird, reflexive denial of anything ever being amiss.

nothing to consider here, everything is fine, how dare you ask. it's a puzzlingly strident intellectual conservativism among people who are otherwise inclined to see themselves as something else.

p.s. if you think that jolie was cast only because she is a "friend", you are very short sighted. i'm sure marianne pearl has other friends; even if friendship is the reason, she certainly chose the friend who would get her movie seen. it's a reasonable choice. [though i personally think pearl is an attention seeker par excellance, it's still a reasonable choice.]

it's also a choice that had to be made by more people than marianne pearl. if she said that i was her friend and she wanted me to play the part, i don't think she would have gotten her wish, for a long, long list of reasons (like i look funny and can't act). so she might have been pearl's choice, but the decision was made by far more people than her, producers, directors, and movie-goers (and the people who interpret movie goers' wants.)

Posted by chuckles | May 27, 2007 10:22 PM

Oh, so it's one of those measured neutral posts about blackface then?

Posted by The Baron | May 28, 2007 8:24 AM

at 15: I never said neutral and no I don't believe it was neutral, it was meant to spark discussion. The responding posts were largely aimed at ending discussion.

But yes, it was a measured post about blackface and how it has changed as means of deploying and reading character in american-ish film.

Where do you see any kind of call to arms? Suggested boycotting? Any screed against Jolie? Did she insist it was racist and couldn't be read any other way? No to all of those.

But thank you for doing your part to prove the point that most responses attempt to shut down discussion and as in your case by amplifying contentions that do no exist, usually in an unintelligent way.

has anyone read "the argument culture"? worth trying, it's been 10 years since i read it, but it's worth it.

Posted by chuckles | May 28, 2007 11:36 AM

The responding posts were largely aimed at ending discussion.

Posts @14 and @16 being particular examples of this.

Posted by the baron | May 28, 2007 3:38 PM

Is this about blackface or that one of Very Few lead roles that would have been available to an actress of color (of which there are MANY talented women)went to a white woman because of box office potential, and what it means about society (nothing good)
Of course I've been on blogs by women of color, and more than one thinks it's pretty tempting to be portrayed by Angelina Jolie- think about it- arguably the most beautiful woman in the world, portraying you! I'd be all over it.

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