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    The Boston Brahmina is
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It’s okay! We’re in a post-racial society!

New York Magazine blogger Micheal Idov has a post up called The Summer of Brownface, about what he sees as an upsurge in white actors playing people of color, whether or not they wear makeup to darken their skin. To his everlasting credit, he calls out the fact that a minstrel show without the makeup—most notably, Mike Meyers in The Love Guru—is no less a minstrel show, but I think he misses an important distinction in including Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama impression in his list.

The key element of minstrel shows is that they mock the people and culture being portrayed, sometimes hiding behind pretending to target a specific person while audiences know that the character is merely a stand-in for a group of people. The butt of SNL’s joke when Armisen plays Obama is exclusively Barack Obama. They have never, that I’ve seen, devolved into stupid racial stereotypes or anything else that would imply they were attempting to make Obama represent all black or biracial people. Armisen’s Obama impression is no more a minstrel show of blackness than biracial Maya Rudolph’s impression of the ridiculously overtanned Donatella Versace is a minstrel show of whiteness or Italianness.

But this kind of cross-racial casting, both in jokes like Armisen’s skits and in serious movies like Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, is nonetheless seriously problematic. It erases the accomplishments of actual people of color; it takes roles away from actors of color, who are shortchanged as it is, which also means that the set will lack the insights that actor could provide on racial issues; and it can come off as arrogance for privileged white people to take on such a role as if they are capable of fully understanding the challenges people of color face. Clearly, SNL’s creators need to carefully examine why they have to resort to darkening up a non-black cast member to play all the African-American roles Kenan Thompson can’t take on, and think about the harm they’re causing by doing so, but calling the skits minstrelsy when they are clearly not covers up all the more subtle but equally pernicious ways in which they are actually hurtful.


2 Responses

  1. I’ve seen a few reviews that try to make Zohan out to be serious, nuanced commentary made palatable by fart jokes, but I’m not I sure I believe it and I’m sure I’m not going to watch the movie to find out for myself. I don’t share Idov’s objection to casting Sandler as is Israeli, since Israelis are a very diverse group, but even if everything Zacharek says is true, casting Schneider and others as Arabs still has all the same problems that casting Armisen as Obama or Jolie as Marianne Pearl–erasure, limiting roles, etc.

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