When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam donned blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson in 1984, it could be that he was acting out of deep-seated racism, but it’s also possible that he was taking a cue from Hollywood.
A year before Mr. Northam’s dance contest, Dan Aykroyd wore blackface in a scene in the hit Hollywood movie “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy. In 1980, Neil Diamond darkened his skin during another major studio release, “The Jazz Singer.”
As the blackface scandal spreads, thanks to more disclosures, most notably an admission from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring that he once donned blackface in college, attention has turned to the role of Hollywood in perpetuating and conferring respectability on the practice of white people darkening or blackening their faces for entertainment purposes.
Some examples are amazingly recent. In the late 2000s, comedian Fred Armisen wore facial makeup to play President Obama on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award for his blackface role in the 2008 action-comedy “Tropic Thunder.”
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, said Hollywood absolutely bears some responsibility.
“We are all habituated to understand race in particular ways by popular culture, by the organization of space (think of neighborhoods — we learn race just by driving in our towns and cities), by the commonsense views that continue to shape how we see one another,” Mr. Glaude said in an email.
In that sense, he said, “Northam’s decision wasn’t a singular/individual act. Recognizing that fact helps us understand how deep this cuts.”
The entertainment industry’s use of blackface has persisted despite civil rights groups’ objections that date back to abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 1848, he called blackface minstrel performers “the filthy scum of white society” in the North Star newspaper.
His condemnation had little impact on show business. White performers donning blackface were common on vaudeville stages in the early 20th century. Indeed, Mr. Diamond’s brief use of blackface was a callback to the original 1927 film of “The Jazz Singer,” which made talking pictures popular. Major 1930s and 40s stars such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland made film appearances in blackface.
In 1986, the NAACP decried “Soul Man,” a major release starring C. Thomas Howell as a student who poses as black to gain a Harvard scholarship. Seven years later, Ted Danson was slammed for wearing blackface to a Friar’s Club roast for his then-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg.
In 2000, late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel wore blackface for comedy sketches. Angelina Jolie spurred debate for darkening her skin and wearing a wig to play a mixed-race woman, Mariane Pearl, in the 2007 drama “A Mighty Heart.”
Mr. Downey’s role may be the stickiest. In the farcical film, he was playing an actor who used blackface and ebonics inappropriately as a method-acting tool and was constantly berated for doing so by the movie’s principal black character: “You’re Australian. Be Australian!” yelled the character played by Brandon T. Jackson. There was some criticism of the blackface but few boycott calls, and the film was a success.
When did blackface become unacceptable in media? Certainly by October, when then-NBC host Megyn Kelly was widely criticized for saying of blackface Halloween costumes that “when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
While celebrities for the most part have weathered the fallout over their blackface decisions, the same cannot be said of politicians.
Mr. Northam, a Democrat, has apologized but rejected calls for his resignation from his party after admitting at a Monday news conference that he used shoe polish to make himself look more like Jackson. He also insisted that he did not pose for a yearbook photo on his page showing a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume, though he initially apologized for the photo.
In Florida, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini refused Tuesday to step down over a photo of him wearing blackface at a party at the age of 16.
“I’m 16 years old, one of my best friends of the time was black, and we thought at the time — looking back, it was immature — it would be funny to dress as each other,” the Republican told the Orlando Sentinel.
He added, “None of us thought 14 years later any of us would be a public figure and the photo would be decontextualized.”
Two weeks ago, however, Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned after less than a month in office over a 2005 photo showing him wearing blackface to impersonate a Hurricane Katrina victim at a Halloween party.
“There’s nothing I can say,” the Republican official told news outlets.
The political tone has changed even since 2013, when then-New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat, apologized for a photo taken at a Purim party at his home in which he wore blackface and a Purim wig. The flap blew over, and he went on to win re-election in 2014 and 2016.
Most of the focus Wednesday centered on Mr. Herring, who admitted that he donned blackface at the age of 19 to impersonate rapper Kurtis Blow in 1980.
“This was a one-time occurrence, and I accept full responsibility for my conduct,” Mr. Herring said in a statement.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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