The Black Lives Matters protests that followed the death of George Floyd led to a slew of changes across the media landscape. While these changes haven't been part of the calls to end police brutality and defund police departments across the nation, they have shown a willingness to address the past's questionable decisions. A big one is the use of blackface across entertainment.
Blackface dates back to minstrel shows that were a fixture in the mid-19th century, according to CNN. White performers would darken their skin with shoe polish and cork, dress in tattered clothing, and exaggerate the movements to look like a stereotypical "Black person" in the eyes of the audience and performers. In reality, this means "lazy, cowardly, or hypersexual" actions with the first minstrel shows focusing on slaves.
While minstrel shows are artifacts from the past, standing as examples of what used to be accepted, a few modern examples have re-entered the spotlight in recent weeks. Names like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have been called out for their past sketches featuring blackface on The Man Show and SNL. Elsewhere, we've seen shows like Community, Scrubs and The Golden Girls drop episodes that featured blackface or jokes related to blackface. While some have questioned the decision and the context for the episodes, others see it as something that has been a long time coming.
Several notable names have appeared in blackface during their careers. Laurence Olivier appeared in Othello in 1965 wearing full blackface to play the title character. C. Thomas Howell did similar for his role in Soul Man, a very different story from Shakespeare viewed as offensive before any filming took place. It has taken many forms with many famous names, but to kick off a look back, you only have to go to the first sound film released in the U.S.
The Jazz Singer is famously noted in film history as the first "talkie" released, Jolson's songs were audible during the film while silent intertitles filled the other parts of the film. But most likely remember it or have come to see it for its heavy use of blackface.prevnext
In the climax of Trading Places alongside Eddie Murphy, Aykroyd and the Delirious comedian join Jamie Lee Curtis in disguise. For the Ghostbusters actor, the problem comes as he dresses like a Jamaican man, complete with blackface.prevnext
Scrubs earned some headlines in the past week due to featuring blackface and whiteface in a few episodes that ended up removed from streaming services. The episodes will likely return with some edits in the future, but these are some of the more high-profile removals next to The Simpsons and Family Guy, and some of the only live-action.prevnext
Whenever discussion comes up about blackface in entertainment history, Garland's work in 1938 from Everybody Sing rises to show The Wizard of Oz star in makeup. It isn't a commentary on blackface either, as Garland plays a character straight out of a minstrel show.prevnext
On the other side, Mary Poppins features some scenes with chimney sweep Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews as the titular character getting soot on their faces from travel up a chimney. Nothing about the scene seems racist at all, but the implication is there for some with a New York Times opinion piece singling out the movie as "flirting" with the offensive tactic.prevnext
It has since been edited out of most repeats on television, but Holiday Inn features classic crooner Bing Crosby in blackface during the "Lincoln's Birthday" musical number.prevnext
Danson infamously appeared at the New York Friars Club roast of then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg in full blackface for his appearance on stage in 1993. According to an AP story on the incident, New York Mayor David Dinkins was embarrassed by the moment, along with Montel Williams who called the act over the line. Danson also used the n-word several times.
"It takes a whole lot of (courage) to come out in blackface... I don't care if you don't like it. I do," Goldberg defended Danson at the time.prevnext
Robert Downey, Jr.
This entry hasn't caused the controversy as the others have, mostly because Robert Downey Jr.'s role in Tropic Thunder is meant to joke and mock the use of blackface and whitewashing in film or television. Still, there has been some debate about the merits of the film and if it could be made today.prevnext
Jimmy Fallon & Jimmy Kimmel
These two are included together due to their shared late-night positions and the timeline with their blackface intertwining. Kimmel and Fallon were under fire by conservative voices for their past use of blackface on TV. Kimmel did a recurring Karl Malone bit on The Man Show while in full blackface makeup. Fallon played Chris Rock in a sketch on SNL back in the early 2000s. Both apologized for the decisions after they resurfaced in recent weeks.prevnext
It is hard to believe that The Jazz Singer would be remade, but it even more surprising that the blackface from the original film would return in the remake. Diamond looks like a member of The Jackson 5 in the awkward scene, only slightly less awkward than Jolson.prevnext
This has been covered and Stern has addressed his past on his show, but he did dress in blackface to mock Danson's attempt at the Friars Club and had used the n-word in other sketches aired on the radio during his career in the mid-90s.
"The s— I did was f—ing crazy. I'll be the first to admit," Stern said on Sirius XM show. "I won't go back and watch those old shows; it's like, 'Who is that guy?' But that was my shtick. That's what I did, and I own it. I don't think I got embraced by Nazi groups and hate groups. They seemed to think I was against them, too. Everybody had a bone to pick with me."prevnext
The legendary comedian has always been in the push to be edgy in comedy while remaining traditional at the time. His work with Richard Pryor are highlights of his career, even when he put on blackface in Silver Streak to get past the police who sought him for murder. The scene from the film is classic bit it is also one that needs to be noted in hindsight.prevnext
Even Mickey Mouse and a lot of early animation took cues from minstrel shows and live acts that utilized blackface. When a Disney adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin was in production, Mickey Mouse ended up taking on a role that required blackface makeup to continue. Along with Looney Tunes, it is clear that early animation is not safe from the influence of racism.prevnext
Check out the full list of names over at Wikipedia and explore the context, history and reasons for the role. Below is a list of those who have appeared in black makeup in the past.
Marcus "Buff" Bagwell
Milt G. Barlow
Butterbeans and Susie
Sammy Davis, Jr.
George Washington Dixon
C. Thomas Howell
Flournoy E. Miller
Irvin C. Miller
Moran and Mack
Herbert Wassell Nadal
Cornelius J. O'Brien
Thomas D. Rice
Ramblin' Tommy Scott