Is ‘blackface’ always beyond the pale?
Circulation of a Karl Lagerfeld photo of Claudia Schiffer as a black woman with an afro to commemorate the 60th issue of the German quarterly magazine, Stern Fotografie, has sparked much interest in the blogosphere. Polls about the photo, which was taken two years ago, either show most people not bothered by the image or not really knowing what to think of it.
Considering Germany’s troubled ethnic and racial past, it’s not surprising that the photo raises a few eyebrows. Although Schiffer is photographed as various personalities, including a biker chick and an Asian woman, it’s the picture of her as a black woman that has stirred up the most controversy. Perhaps the photo of Schiffer as an Asian woman hasn’t raised concerns because most people were unable to identify her as such. The one with the darkened skin and afro, however, is undeniable.
In the 21st century, it is a bit unsettling that blackface is even deemed necessary or creative. While passé for certain, is blackface always a call to arms? Last year, many blasted the French edition of Vogue when its editor Carine Roitfeld had photographer Steven Klein shoot Dutch model Lara Stone in blackface for its October 2009 issue. History aside, what made Roitfeld’s decision disturbing is that, despite some progress in the high fashion industry in past decades, black models have definitely been fewer and farther between in recent years. So, if the desire is to photograph black skin, the logical question is: why not employ those who happen to possess it?
When it comes to Schiffer, it’s a stickier situation. Stone is an unknown white model but Schiffer is a beloved supermodel who is well associated with Naomi Campbell. Schiffer, who is German, has never been associated with racially offensive incidents. Neither has Stone, to our knowledge, but we don’t know her as well as we know Schiffer. If this photo was done at the beginning of Schiffer’s career and not towards the end, perhaps there would be more outrage. In other words, we know Schiffer and she’s never really been that controversial until now.
So does knowing the character of the person donning the mask make blackface more acceptable? If Glenn Beck, Anne Coulter or Rush Limbaugh were to pose in blackface, they certainly would not get the same pass that Claudia Schiffer has received. Their conservative outspokenness and, what many deem racially incendiary rhetoric, combined with the disturbing history behind blackface, would just be too much. It would serve as an endorsement of racial bigotry and not as an artistic statement.
And understandably so. In the 1830s into the 1840s, Manhattan, New York-born and raised white performer Thomas Rice, also known as Daddy Rice, became extremely popular throughout the United States and in London for donning blackface, dressing in rags and exaggerating the speech patterns and dance movements of a ‘black’ character known as “Jim Crow.” Sadly, when actual black performers became the main attractions in the ever-popular “black” minstrel shows that emerged in the 1850s, they also had to don blackface and follow the stereotype of either the “plantation darky” who missed slavery or the well-dressed, lazy city slicker.
Those accepted tropes haunted black performers into the 20th century. For example, the extremely talented and, arguably, this nation’s first black entertainment superstar Bert Williams performed in blackface with the legendary Ziegfeld Follies. Today, he is dismissed by a lot of African-Americans because he performed in blackface but burnt cork couldn’t obscure his tremendous talent. As Marlon Riggs demonstrated in his classic 1978 documentary Ethnic Notions, the twisted legacy of blackface still afflicts contemporary African-American entertainment. Spike Lee also tried to drive this point home in 2000 with his film Bamboozled.
Still intent looms large. Perhaps that’s why Al Jolson, the Jewish performer best known for his blackface performance in the 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, counted Bill “Bojangles” Robinson among his many black friends. And there are quite a few black people who enjoyed Robert Downey, Jr.’s blackface performance in Tropic Thunder in 2008 mainly because it was clear that Downey was a white man playing a black man. In other words, he wasn’t being passed off as black. Also, it’s easier to accept Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen’s portrayal of President Barack Obama and New York Governor David Patterson precisely because Saturday Night Live has a resident black performer with Kenan Thompson. Therefore, it’s assumed that Armisen, who, in character, does resemble Obama, is the right man for the job.
Like the n-word, some argue, shouldn’t we just do away with this mode of expression altogether? Perhaps we should but blackface is not going anywhere anytime soon. Whether it’s Rihanna darkening herself more for her latest video, “Rockstar 101,” or Karl Lagerfeld channeling Claudia Schiffer’s inner soul sister, blackface still has an allure. And, thus far, today’s audiences have made it clear that they consider the intent behind the act and not just the act and its history before they cry foul.