Monday, September 20, 2010

Time to end “blackface” practices toward disabled actors and characters

Shawn and Marlon Wayans defy tradition as a couple of "White Chicks"
(Movie Release Poster, Wikimedia Commons)

"Blackface" is an old term, but one that many African-Americans still recognize, especially those active in civil rights. It comes from the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which white musicians smeared their faces with black makeup, most commonly a substance made from burnt cork, to portray black characters.

This was just one way in which black people were demeaned in early theater and cinema. Another common practice was called "stepinfetchit." Black characters were portrayed as lower class: servants, blue-collar workers, or often people who were unemployed. Their actions were usually ridiculous, something considered at the time meant to be comical. In retrospect, these caricatures actually were demeaning and sad.

On the other hand, perhaps the most famous and common role in which white actors went blackface was when they portrayed Othello in the Shakespearean play of the same name. Only in the middle of the 20th century, when such gifted actors as James Earl Jones proved African-Americans are capable of learning the lines and playing the complex character of the Moor, did producers begin to depend on a pool of brilliant black actors for that and other classic roles of darker-skinned characters.

Now, in the 21st century, black characters run the gamut from street people to wealthy power brokers. And there's never a question that the actors playing those characters will themselves be black. No one would dare cast a white person in a role that required them to pile on dark makeup, unless it was part of a complicated storyline. For example, in the 1976 movie "Silver Streak," Gene Wilder did a successful comedy turn in blackface as he and Richard Pryor ran from the law on their way to saving "fair lady" Jill Clayburgh from "bad guy" Patrick McGoohan.

In fact, if turnabout is fair play, there have been several instances in which black actors have hidden behind white makeup. My first notice of Greg Morris' talented son, Phil, came when he played a cop who went undercover in whiteface on the daytime drama "The Young and the Restless." And Shawn and Marlon Wayans even portrayed a couple of black FBI agents who don white face paint to play a couple of "White Chicks." Why not?

Why not, indeed. Why, then, do entertainment companies not have the same respect for disabled actors? There are a few instances in which producers cast actors who actually have the disability that the character is supposed to have. But far more often, they recruit perfectly able-bodied people to portray characters with disabilities. Most of the time, they don't even bother interviewing actors who have those disabilities before they fill the roles with those able bodies.

The reasons they cite are many, but two prevail:

  • They claim insurance costs for people with disabilities are too high, and they have to cut corners where they can.
  • They claim disabled actors wouldn't be up to the task and would slow down production.

If that were so, then what do they have to say about those disabled actors who successfully fill the roles they have been given? Not only has their presence not raised costs, but they've generally received great reviews, not because of their disabilities but because of their professional contributions.

That's why one successful disabled actor has been fighting to improve the situation for other disabled actors. In my next entry, I'll discuss the reason Robert David Hall has dedicated his life to ending discrimination against disabled actors and other entertainment professionals.

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