Updated: Aug 9, 2020
Every few years, Hollywood deals with a most uncomfortable truth. Just as the industry positions itself as a benevolent change agent, a controversy rises that reveals the long struggle that film entertainment has with its birth parent, American blackface.
The underbelly presence of American blackface reared its ugly head again in the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement. The latest development in this revolving racial door comes from Jimmy Kimmel, a late-night talk show host. Kimmel, ironically, began his career by cultivating a working-class audience similar to the one that enjoyed blackface during its heyday.
Kimmel faces controversy for his use of blackface in the show he once co-hosted with friend Adam Carolla called “The Man Show.” It ran between 1999 and 2004. The sketches celebrated lewd blue-collar behavior, featured on-air beer-guzzling, and heralded a squad of young women who jumped on trampolines. It also featured Kimmel in blackface sketches of prominent African Americans. These included NBA star Karl Malone and media icon Oprah Winfrey. In one case, he used the N-word when he performed as celebrity Snoop Dogg.
Others who have found themselves in similar blackface fracases during the past year include Jimmy Fallon and Megyn Kelly. Others such as Tina Fey, have attempted to avoid controversy by voluntarily pulling down episodes of their shows. Fey pulled four “race-changing makeup” sketches from “30 Rock,” a NBC show that ran from 2006 to 2013. Following her lead, and her reframing word choice, the networked pulled streaming episodes from “The Golden Girls,” “The Office,” and “Scrubs” that featured race tropes.
This descent into race controversy probably will not be the last time Hollywood defends itself as it tries to address the lingering legacy of blackface in an industry that prides itself on progressive cultural values. The fact that many of these developments occurred within the past 12 months shows that Hollywood still grapples with the systemic effects of its ancestral roots.
William Selig is mostly remembered as the first pioneer of Hollywood in 1896. Film history has quietly brushed over his catalog of minstrel movies and the fact that he was the founder of “Selig and Johnson's Colored Minstrels.” The San Francisco troupe comprised the most famous blackface performers at the turn of the 20th Century.
Selig entered minstrelsy decades after American blackface gained a foothold in the fledgling country. In the early 1830s, the genre became the first unique form of American entertainment when Northern white men mimicked Southern slaves. They covered their faces in black makeup and pretended to be either a happy go-lucky slave or a dandy, which was the term for a Northern “upiddity” educated free black man.
Most early minstrel acts were stationed in New York where they performed in major theaters. They toured through Northern villages and towns. They also went overseas where they were popular in Great Britain. Minstrelsy was known as the popular entertainment for the American working class. Opera and classical music were considered imported upper-class European culture entertainment and the blue-collar immigrants rejected them.
Minstrelsy expanded over the decades to include non-blackface performances that promoted white Southern culture or general American pride, but blackface remained its foundation. Over the next 150 years, minstrelsy popularity continued to grow along with its message that blacks are members of one or two archetypes, each subservient.
The genre also includes some of the most enduring songs across the world and their effects stretch into today, albeit they are no longer remembered as “early American entertainment” but debated as “cultural history.” Sometimes sanitized after the Civil War, the songs still broke records long into the Jim Crow Era. In fact, The Yellow Rose of Texas was the most popular song in the world during the 1950s when Mitch Miller resurrected it into an orchestral arrangement that included a rousing male chorus.
The fact that blackface performances relied on the experience and talents of Southern slaves was not overlooked by some segment of the early American population. Minstrelsy was always mired in controversy as critics of the day charged the industry with appropriating black culture for economic and political purposes. Two hundred years later, versions of the argument, quite often aimed at the Kardashian family, are still being made.
In reply to the critics, minstrels defended their acts as an “admiring imitation” of black expressions and culture. None of the minstrels would have considered what they were doing to be a caricature or a demeaning form of insult. Hollywood still makes the same argument. Kimmel uttered virtually the same words when he said he was performing characters not blackface. He argued his critics deliberately misinterpreted his sketches for political benefit in the era of cancel culture.
The advancement of motion picture technology gave blackface a platform it never left. Hollywood became one of the most prolific advancers of blackface messaging in American politics and culture. In fact, the Jim Crow Era takes its name from an early minstrel character. Thomas Rice created the popular character before the Civil War. Rice portrayed the happy go-lucky slave who enjoyed plantation life and liked his master.
The use of black casts to portray the archetypes was also part of the minstrel foundation. Because life was harsh for both whites and blacks in early New York, they competed against each other for jobs. The entertainment industry was no exception. The first black to wear blackface was William Lane, considered in some music history circles to be the pioneer of what became American jazz.
In the 1830s, he joined minstrels who were impressed with his dance moves. An orphan, he considered them his family. They gave him the stage name “Masta Juba,” which was a plantation term to describe a musically talented slave. Immensely popular, he eventually moved to Great Britain and never returned to the United States.
The later part of the 20th Century saw the end of blackface troupes, but blackface continued in Hollywood. One of the last most controversial public performances occurred when actor Ted Danson appeared in blackface at the Friars Club in 1993. He was dating comedian Whoopie Goldberg at the time. Goldberg helped him concoct the blackface character as a response to the backlash of their interracial relationship, but her confession fell on deaf ears. Danson was said to have offended both black and white guests.
Within the next 15 years Kimmel and Fallon would perform blackface and shows, like Fey’s, would bring blackface into the millennium. The idea that post-Civil Rights Era actors believed Hollywood would accept these performances without backlash is not surprising. What would be surprising is if this were the end of comedic actors who fell into the pit of Hollywood’s uncomfortable truth.