| G. Michael Dobbs
As regular readers of this column and my movie reviews might ascertain, I’m in love with films from the 1920 through 1950s.
If I ever retire – a concept I’ve abandoned and have instead accepted the idea of doing this job or one like it until they cart my body out of the building – I would spend a bunch of my time watching films from the past that are either favorites or ones I’ve just discovered.
Having proclaimed that love, I also have another confession: blackface and yellowface have always made me uncomfortable.
If you watch films from that era, it is not uncommon to see white actors portraying various people of different racial groups with the assistance of some make-up.
Blackface played a key role in American entertainment. There were people who used it in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts. Al Jolson, the singer who was the star of the first successful part-talkie movie “The Jazz Singer” used blackface a lot in his act and that movie.
As a teen learning about films I just didn’t get it. Why is this supposed to be entertaining?
When I studied about the “golden age of radio,” I learned about “Amos and Andy,” a long-running radio show that spawned a movie. The show was created and starred two white men. They appeared in blackface in their movie “Check and Double Check.”
While the film was not a success, they spent decades after that playing black characters on radio with stereotypical vocal performances.
One of my favorite old movie series as a kid were the Charlie Chan mystery films – movies that had white actors in the lead role of a Chinese-American detective.
As a kid I wondered why an Asian actor didn’t play the role. Years later I asked Keye Luke, who played Chan’s “number one son” in the series – and had a very long career as a character actor – about that issue.
I asked him, “Did it every bother you or any other Asian actors that non-Asian were being cast in Asian roles?”
Luke replied, “There were no Oriental actors who had the talent or the box office attraction, you see. You must remember that films are made for a white audience and Oriental players are necessarily supporting players. Once in a while there’s a fine part and I’ve done some of those, but generally they are just simply supporting parts. Now, of course, the situation is changed, There are many fine Asian actors who are qualified to play the finest parts you can give.”
Studios would not have risked a possible backlash from audiences or exhibitors by casting Asian-American actors in Asian lead roles. Keye Luke appeared in the movie adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel “the Good Earth,” but he had a supporting role. All of the main characters were white actors in yellowface.
I bring up all of this movie history to make a simple point: everyone should know at this point in history that blackface and yellowface are wrong.
In fact, it has always been wrong.
The idea that the governor of Virginia can sputter out some sort of explanation about a photo from 1984, attempting to distance himself at first and then developing a narrative that is supposed spin the incident into some example we have more to work out about race, is absurd.
Blackface was definitely wrong in 1984. It’s wrong now.
Now before my readers who like to write me letters telling me how I’m wrong about everything run to their computers, let me assure you I’m disgusted the governor in question is a Democrat.
Racism clearly knows no boundaries when it comes to American culture.
It’s sad that someone going to medical school in 1984 thought that posing in blackface next to someone in a KKK costume was at all appropriate. Aren’t doctors supposed to be smart?
Race in this country remains a difficult issue.