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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Blackface or Kissed by a Bottle of Spray-On Tan?

posted by on June 28 at 13:40 PM

A Mighty Heart is bombing at the box office, and it can’t do any better this coming week, with competition from Sicko in limited markets and Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard everywhere. But I’d submit that the distressing subject matter is but one reason filmgoers are staying away. The uncomfortable vision of Angelina Jolie moping around in adopted skin is another.


This article from the Washington Post last weekend is the best thing I’ve read on the legacy of mixed-race “brown”-face in cinema. A must if you can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Incidentally, there’s a new book out about Oscar Micheaux, who’s mentioned in the article: The Great and Only Oscar Micheaux: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker. I just got it from the library.

And that great ’70s film by Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, is extending through next Thursday at Northwest Film Forum.

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There was also a massive radio ad blitz for the movie before it came out. And I don't know about the consensus opinion of the country, but I'm pretty sure I'll get some agreement on this: there's no quicker way to turn me off to a movie that ads that tell me how powerful a movie is and how great so-and-so's performance is before the movie's even come out.

The more you try to tell me with ads that a movie's great, the more I doubt its quality.

The ad blitz pretty much told me that this movie sucked.

Posted by Gomez | June 28, 2007 2:58 PM

Actually... it was really good. And she was really good. Incredibly believable performance—I bought it. It felt like I was watching the whole thing unfold as it happened.

Posted by Carollani | June 28, 2007 3:41 PM

Who cares?
I didn't have a problem with Duncan playing Kingpin in the Daredevil movie, I don't have a problem with this.

Posted by supergp | June 28, 2007 3:47 PM

The color of her skin is not at the top of the list of reasons why she shouldn't be in the role.

Posted by Fnarf | June 28, 2007 5:12 PM

Oh for fuck sake. Jessica Alba can put in blue contacts and wear a blond wig to play Sue Storm, nobody gives a fuck. Angelina Jolie tans and puts on a wig to play a biracial woman, someone screams blackface.

Fucking blackface? Are you kidding me?

Leaving aside the implications of biracial (only in America with its bygone one-drop laws...) there might be an argument for saying that this kind of casting appropriates heroes from history, laying claim to them along racial lines. But anyone making that claim would have to accept responsibility for the larger implication; that history's heroes belong to certain racial groups-- that John Brown was a white American hero and that only a white man should play him. And of course that standard could be applied to literature as well; Hamlet was, after all, the prince of Denmark.

Which raises the obvious point that, due to European cultural hegemony, people of color have a lot more to lose in that kind of battle than whites do. Ban white actors from playing Martin Luther King Jr. and ban people of color from playing Macbeth, you're going to be taking more acting jobs away from people of color than you're guaranteeing them (and cutting them off from participation in their culture at the same time; African Americans, as English speakers, are as much the inheritors of Shakespeare as anyone).

So we fall back to this ridiculous "blackface" argument. Better a patently false attack that stands firmly on the moral high ground than an accurate one that would enforce a standard nobody wants to live by.

What a bunch of bullshit.

Posted by Judah | June 28, 2007 5:36 PM

Blackface was originally used to mock and denigrate black people. Then, especially in Hollywood, it was used to deny jobs to black actors. Well, at least any role that didn't portray a waiter/waitress, train porter, slave, or servant.

The former certainly doesn't apply here. As for the latter, I guess I would be more concerned about Angelina robbing a good role from a biracial actress if, in the past five years, 16 African American actors hadn't been nominated for and six hadn't won Academy Awards.

Posted by keshmeshi | June 28, 2007 6:09 PM

The thing is, though--I don't care if it's bombing at the box office. And that should never be the standard of whether something is good or bad anyway.

I thought it was a really fine film--not easy in any sense, but really good--and it'll be interesting to see people discover it in the years to come.

Posted by Boomer in NYC | June 28, 2007 6:11 PM

I don't think the black/brown/burnt-siennaface is the issue here. The issue is that movies like this are honestly dime a dozen, and it's a Lifetime movie of the week posing as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Getting the DVD from Netflix would be a ripoff, let alone paying $9.50 to see it on a big screen.

Posted by Gomez | June 28, 2007 7:34 PM

I don't think the black/brown/burnt-siennaface is the issue here.

Annie Wagner does, as she's clearly obsessed with it.

Posted by The Baron | June 28, 2007 10:30 PM

@7: I quite agree, success in the box office should never be a deciding factor in determing the quality of a film

I was surprised by how good this movie was. Didn't conjure up Lifetime movie for me at all. It felt very real. and I had no sense of the maternal martyr aspect that Annie spoke of in her review. Jolie played her part subtley and didn't overpower the film... I think that last week's New Yorker review pretty much sums it up.

Posted by citrus | June 28, 2007 10:47 PM

This movie isn't doing well for the same reason that Hotel Rwanda didn't do as well. It's a sad, tragic, violent story and that turns some people off. The only reason it's getting any play at all is because Jolie is the lead.

I think Sandra Oh had an interesting take on it in an interview with BUST last year:

BUST: "You have no compunction about playing characters that are Japanese or Chinese, I see."

Sandra: "Yeah, I started that way. I played a Chinese girl, Evelyn Lau; the very first thing that I did...I encourage it. I completely understand saying that you want to be specific to the ethnicity, but that rule never applies to white people...Ralph Fiennes can play an English person, a German person, a Polish person, a Jewish person. He can play anything, and no one questions him. He is a handsome, Caucasian-looking-ish man. So, to American audiences, Europe looks like that. Europe does not look like that...that is the image we have been fed for 60 years, so we accept that. But what I have big problems with is when people put those limits on me...there always has to be a quantifier or qualifier when it comes to me."

Posted by la | June 28, 2007 11:25 PM

@6 - Given how long the Academy Awards have been around, the number of movies, etc. that's not saying a whole lot. So many of the academy members are seemingly like Ernest Borgnine, who refused to watch Brokeback, although I bet Tovah did.

OMG, You guys, okay, Brad Pitt produced the movie and Angelina is like bff with Marianne Pearl. Although Brad Pitt apparently said he did feel a bit like Wolfowitz.

Posted by stone | June 29, 2007 10:36 AM

Forest Whitaker in Last King of Scotland was much darker than Forest Whitaker in real life. Nobody seems to have a problem with that.

Posted by pox | June 29, 2007 12:14 PM

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