Shades of blackface

By Orville Lloyd Douglas

When Angelina Jolie was cast to play Marianne Pearl in the biopic film A Mighty Heart there was an uproar by the African American community. Jolie is white whereas Pearl - widow of journalist Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 - is a bi-racial woman of Afro-Cuban heritage with her mother Marita Van Neyenhoff being black.

Internet blogs have been burning with incendiary discussions and black pop culture blogs such as Mediatakeout, BET, Bossip, Concrete Loop have been denouncing the film as leading roles for black women in Hollywood are few and far between.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, who is of bi-racial heritage and is co-founding member of anti-racist training company New Demographic in New York City, says: "I would have liked to see the studio cast a woman of colour in the role. I don't quite understand the rationale behind the studio's decision to make Angelina Jolie look like she has African heritage."

Many suggested Thandie Newton would have been appropriate since she is a solid actress, has bi-racial heritage, and looks extremely similar to Marianne Pearl. Others have questioned if it was just Hollywood deciding once again to "go blackface."

Van Kerckhove says "I think that Hollywood is still oblivious to the fact that blackface, yellow face and brown face is offensive.

Just this year we have seen Brian Dennehy play Kublai Khan (in the Hallmark Channel movie Marco Polo, Eddie Murphy play a Chinese man (Norbit), Nicolas Cage play Fu Manchu (Grindhouse). And I just read that Jessica Biel may play the Chinese character Chun Li in an upcoming movie remake of the videogame Street Fighter. Clearly Hollywood is not spending much time thinking this issue through."

The phenomenon of white performers "blacking up" emerged in the 19th century but was at its height when the white Al Jolson performed in blackface in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Blackface was popular since it was a caricature of blackness.

Apart from blacking up, Hollywood has a history of ignoring talented black female actors. The legendary Lena Horne lost the role in the 1951 film Showboat to Ava Gardner and Dorothy Dandridge also lost roles due to her race during the 1950s.

Not everyone agrees Jolie is miscast. Lee Papa, a professor of English, world literature, and speech at CUNY in New York City says "true 'blackface' was an intentional mockery and exaggeration of race, with even black people doing blackface to appear darker for white audiences. Angelina Jolie is an actor playing a character who is at least part white."

Pearl's comments about race in Glamour magazine last year indicates her own ambivalence about her black heritage. In the article "The woman who gave me strength" she does not use the word "black" and repeatedly refers to her mother's heritage as "Cuban."

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, suggests that due to the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and modern-day racism, some people of mixed heritage do not want to identify with their black heritage. "Who in the world would want to identify with 'black' or African under circumstances as they are for the past 500 years?"

Van Kerckhove points out Pearl has a different mentality on the issue of race than Americans. "It probably made sense to cast a high-profile actor in the role because that would bring more people out to watch the film. Also, Pearl wasn't born and raised in the United States so her views on race may be a bit different from ours."

A Mighty Heart is an American production from Brad Pitt's company Plan B. Another American view is that since Pearl is bi-racial and part Latino, Jolie was a palatable casting choice.

Herman Vera a professor of sociology at the University of Florida argues that "the racialisation of Latinos is part of the American obsession with race. Latinos are indeed an ethnic [group], not a race."

Walter L. Goldfrank, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies and Sociology at Santa Cruz university believes "in the USA, people tend to get coded into 'racial' groups even though there is little real basis for this coding. Hispanics are treated as if they're a racial minority in this sense, even though they are culturally very diverse and have skin colour ranging from 'black' to 'white'."

Papa points out Jolie is an A-list actor and is considered more bankable then a black or bi-racial actor. Few black actors have broken the colour barrier in Hollywood. The talented Thandie Newton was last seen in Eddie Murphy's stereotypical comedy Norbit.

Van Kerkchove is disappointed. "There are so few quality roles for non-white actors to begin with - it's sad to see this potentially Oscar-worthy role go to a white actor."

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 24 Jul 2014 05:00:44 Processing Time: 1138ms