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Modern Day Blackface?

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The Entertainment Industry and its respective players are increasingly becoming more aware of its responsibility to share Black stories, provide opportunities and represent Black voices both in front of and behind the camera (this includes actors, directors, storytellers, writers, etc.). As the Black Lives Matter Movement and recent protests have forced many Americans to confront their privilege and how they too are part of the system that suppresses people of color, members of the entertainment community have released statements, shared photos, and expressed the ways in which they are “Muted but Listening”.

Many members of the movement have called out for allies to be active participants in battling systemic racism and discrimination which can happen in various ways. For some, it is having tough and uncomfortable conversations while confronting their own privilege[1], for others, it has been quitting career opportunities. For example, both Kristen Bell and Jenny Slate have quit their mixed-race character roles on television animated series, Central Park and Big Mouth. [2]Slate released a statement on Instagram explaining her initial reasoning for accepting the role, but an ultimate reflection that led her to quit the job. Slate explains, similar to “Missy”, Slate is also Jewish and White, “But “Missy” is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white supremacy [. . .] I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”[3]Bell also released a statement on Instagram explaining that “This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity. Here is one of mine. Playing the character of Molly on Central Park shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive privilege. Casting a mixed-race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed-race and Black American experience.”[4]

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Entertainers taking responsibility for their “acts of complicity” as Bell states is a great first step. A generative analysis of how historically the entertainment industry has used Blackface until it was no longer socially acceptable, given Black parts to non-people of color, begs the question, ‘Is giving animated characters with mixed raced backgrounds to White entertainers a modern form of Blackface?’. There is no clear answer to this question. Dating back to the 1800s, minstrel shows became very popular, spearheaded by playwright and actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice, embodying a racist idea of an over-exaggerated character of a Black man which he named “Jim Crow”. [5] Rice and minstrel shows gained traction in the 1820s when his song “Jump Jim Crow” became very popular.[6] Although he was not the first actor to use Blackface in his skits, his representations specifically were problematic as he became very famous and toured all over America and Europe. The stereotypes set by minstrel shows of Black people has influenced how people perceive Black people and people of color and in the film industry created culturally insensitive and narrow ideas of characters Black people could play. For example, the 1975 film “Mandingo”[7] or fan outrage when in 2012 the character “Ruth” was cast as a Black actor for the film the Hunger Games.[8]

A recent UCLA research study analyzing the diversity of Hollywood reports that “Whites remained overrepresented among all top film roles in 2017, claiming 77 percent of the roles [. . .] with Black Americans at 9 percent and Latinos at 5.2 percent.”[9] Furthermore, when examining the percentage of episodes directed by minorities, the report found that “For 41 percent of broadcast scripted shows form 2016-2017 season, people of color directed less than 11 percent of the episodes.”[10] With more entertainers like voice actor Mike Henry giving up his 20-year role as Cleveland on Family Guy[11] noting “persons of color should play characters of color”, to the entire Simpson Producer team releasing a statement that“Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters”[12], it seems that Black people and people of color are being given more opportunities to play the characters that are drawing on Black experiences, ultimately creating an industry that is more authentic in its storytelling. After analyzing how Black people and people of color have been historically represented and misrepresented in the media and entertainment industry, as well as the lack of opportunity and limited roles for Black entertainers both on and off the screen, it is evident that giving animated characters with mixed raced backgrounds to White entertainers is extremely problematic. Now, back to the original question posited in this article, ‘Is giving animated characters with mixed raced backgrounds to White entertainers a modern form of Blackface?’.

[1] Emmanuel Acho, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man – Episode 2 with Matthew McConaughey, YouTube (June 10, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwiY4i8xWIc&t=147s.

[2] Hannah J. Davies, Recasting Kristen Ball and Jenny Slate’s Black voice riles is an afterthought – and an opportunity, The Guardian (June 25, 2020),  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/jun/25/jenny-slate-kristen-bell-recasting-black-tv-voice-roles-is-an-afterthought-opportunity.

[3] Jenny Slate (@jennyslate), Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB1JlSqFXT8/?igshid=1etetjjdsq24p (last visited July 1, 2020).

[4] Kristen Bell (@kristenanniebell), Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB1coy7JkDG/ (last visited July 1, 2020).

[5] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Thomas Dartmouth Rice – American entertainer, Britannica (May 16, 2020), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Dartmouth-Rice (last visited July 1, 2020).

[6] Id.

[7] Keertana Sastry, SHAME ON HOLLYWOOD: These Are The Most Racist Films Of All Time, Business Insider  (June 1, 2012), https://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-racist-films-of-all-time-2012-5#2-mandingo-1975-is-just-plain-crazy-20.

[8] Anna Holmes, White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games, The New Yorker (Mar. 30, 2012), https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/white-until-proven-black-imagining-race-in-hunger-games.

[9] UCLA College Social Sciences, Hollywood Diversity Report 2019 (2019), https://socialsciences.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/UCLA-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2019-2-21-2019.pdf.

[10] Id at 30. applewebdata://66953281-0766-4D52-917B-4D21C41DD59E#_ftn10

[11] Mike Henry (@mikehenrybro), Twitter (June 26, 2020), https://twitter.com/mikehenrybro/status/1276631712949317639?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1276631712949317639%7Ctwgr%5E&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.rollingstone.com%2Ftv%2Ftv-news%2Ffamily-guy-actor-cleveland-the-simpsons-1021473%2F.

[12] Thomson Reuters, The Simpsons ditches using white voices for characters of colour, CBC (June 27, 2020), https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/simpsons-character-voices-1.5630049

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Eryn L. Pollard, is a second-year law student at Notre Dame Law School and is the secretary of the Black Law Students Association.