Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Blacking Up: Racist or Avant Garde?

Now, here's one of those not-with-a-ten-foot-pole issues: white people blacking up on stage and screen.

Not surprisingly, this is a bit of an emotive issue in terms of racial politics. The classic example is the Black and White Minstrel Show, which was a clearly, unequivocally racist show, as I think very few people would argue with, including one of its stars:

BBC Four: In the programme, one of the show's producers describes the moment when it first struck him that black people might find it offensive. Did you have a similar realisation?
Les Want: Yes. It was during the dress rehearsal for our second Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. Diana Ross and the Supremes were topping the bill, and we were absolutely thrilled. When Diana Ross saw us she refused to carry on until we'd cleared the auditorium. As we left the stage she gave the Black Power salute. Then it all came home. Three years after that we disbanded.
Yes, 3 years later they realised there might be something dodgy about this:

The broader issue of blacking up is obviously controversial, but it was surprisingly common right up until the mid-70s. Even my beloved Doctor Who has some issues in this regard:

But the reason I bring it up is because I recently got round to obtaining and watching a film that had piqued my curiosity when reading a strange little book some time ago: O Lucky Man!

It's a Lindsey Anderson film (him wot did If...) starring Malcolm McDowell from 1973, and it's a fascinating, anarchic, hilarious, beautiful piece of work. McDowell plays a young salesman called Michael Travis, and the film follows his fortunes as he goes up and down the country, falling afoul of various official and vested interests, a kind of English Candide. One of the themes of the film is the idea that the same situations play themselves out with the same characters in different roles. So a military interrogator is played by the same actor as a Salvation Army major in a later scene.

And Arthur Lowe (yes, Captain Mainwaring) plays a coffee company boss, a mayor and, well... Doctor Munda:

But here's the thing: given the thematic content of the film, and what all these character changes are meant to achieve, I don't think it is racist. In fact, given the kinds of character Arthur plays in the film - minor players, people with a bit of power but ultimately responsible to people with far bigger desks than his, the character makes a lot of sense to be played by Arthur. Doctor Munda is the President of a small African republic appealing to a wealthy English financier to lend him the funds to purchase a horrific Agent Orange-type defoliant to bring some rebels into line, in exchange for which Doctor Munda will turn his country into a sweatshop for Western capital.

A strong theme in the film is a cycle of oppression and colonialism, which this scene captures rather neatly.

So why bother posting on this at all? Well, for the reasons above, essentially. Blacking up has a long, ignoble tradition, whether it's the Minstrels, Olivier playing Othello, or just Tory councillors. Seeing it was still something of a shock, given what a taboo it has become over the years. But it also seems far from clear cut, in the sense that people's attitudes to it have changed remarkably over a relatively short period of time (check out Les Want in the BBC Four interview above avowing that the entire Duke Ellington orchestra gave the show a standing ovation, whilst a few years later Diana Ross was appalled). Then there's the weird phenomenon of 'Darkie Days' where half a town black up for charidee, and can't see anything racist in it (check the link for the ultimate 'I can't be racist, some of my best lays were black' moment). How do you react to that? I mean, where I'm from we also have a strange annual tradition, although that involves making odd pictures out of petals and seeds and putting them around wells, rather than crassly caricaturing people with more melanin than themselves, but there's a strange normalising cultural context these things often take place in. It wasn't until I moved up North, for example, that I realised just how weird well-dressings really are, and how little sense the idea makes to anyone not from the area.

And whilst I'm more or less happy with my reasoning on this particular film, although I admit the whole topic makes me feel uneasy, that doesn't preclude me being dead wrong - so I'd love to know what anyone else thinks on this.


lpcyusa said...

#What It’s Like to Chill with the Most Ruthless Men in the World
Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic:
Confessions of a Female War Crimes Investigator

Retrospectively, it was all so simple, natural and matter of fact being on a boat restaurant in Belgrade, sitting with, laughing, drinking a two hundred bottle of wine and chatting about war and peace while Ratko Mladic held my hand. Mladic, a man considered the world’s most ruthless war criminal since Adolf Hitler, still at large and currently having a five million dollar bounty on his head for genocide by the international community. Yet there I was with my two best friends at the time, a former Serbian diplomat, his wife, and Ratko Mladic just chilling. There was no security, nothing you’d ordinarily expect in such circumstances. Referring to himself merely as, Sharko; this is the story of it all came about.


Christie Malry said...