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When will Hollywood confront its blackface legacy?

When will Hollywood confront its blackface legacy?
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in "Babes In Arms" in 1939. (MGM / Kobal / REX / Shutterstock)

The now infamous photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical-school yearbook started a conversation that the Oscars should continue on Sunday. Hollywood needs to account for its role in a culture that allowed one young white man (Northam or whomever) to blacken his face and another to don a white hood and happily pose for a snapshot.

The racist performance known as blackface got its start in minstrel shows in the 1830s, but it has maintained its still-potent presence in the culture, in part, as a consequence of the movie and entertainment industry.

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The first major motion picture, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation,” used blackface to depict African American villainy at the same time that it romanticized the Ku Klux Klan. The film served as a recruiting tool for the nearly defunct terrorist organization, carrying it to national prominence during the Jim Crow period. “Birth of a Nation” was a blockbuster before the term was invented. It alone is a telltale of the awesome and frightening power of movies.

The traditions of mimicry and mayhem against black people have always been inseparable.


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But too frequently, Americans prefer to admit only to the kinder, gentler cinematic blackface of Al Jolson, in “The Jazz Singer”; Judy Garland, in “Babes in Arms”; Fred Astaire, in “Swing Time”; and, later, Gene Wilder, in “Silver Streak.” Their performances are treated more as harmless forms of racial flattery. The really horrible stuff is supposed to be buried deep in the past.

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That kind of thinking is why Northam denied he was in the racist photograph on his yearbook page but owned up to another blackface moment: dressing up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest. Northam is gambling that a be-like-Michael moment won’t force him from office. Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, and third in line to the governorship, has followed the same playbook by admitting that he once blackened up to portray rapper Kurtis Blow in college.

Northam and Herring want to claim that these thoughtless moments were born out of racial innocence. In the spirit of 1980s interracial buddy films and MTV, they want the public to believe they were celebrating black culture rather than legitimizing racial terror.

But the traditions of mimicry and mayhem against black people have always been inseparable.

In the years before the Civil War, white immigrants, often Irish Americans, who on one night, might have crowded theaters to see blackface minstrel shows, on the next night, might take to the streets to participate in what the historian David Roediger calls “Blackface-on-black” violence. Some of the same fans who cheered for “Jump Jim Crow” at the Bowery Theater later participated in the 1863 Draft Riots, killing more than 100 African Americans in New York and burning down a “colored” orphanage.

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As the photos in Northam’s yearbook attest, blackface likely surged with the arrival of African Americans on predominately white college campuses in the post-civil rights era. In a report published last week, USA Today reviewed 900 yearbooks published in the 1970s and 1980s at 20 colleges in 25 states and found 200 examples of racist images. The “vast majority” portrayed “students in blackface or KKK robes.”

Like Irish immigrants who felt threatened by the social proximity of free blacks in New York City, young white men, even in the 1980s, might feel unsure of what to make of that new era of black freedom. They could reach into the treasure chest of America’s racist legacy by participating directly in blackface minstrelsy and, possibly for Northam, in reenactments of racial terror.

Such symbolic acts of white supremacy were also fueled by and reflected in the emergence of the law-and-order and Southern strategies employed in Republican presidential campaigns by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and the former movie star-turned-politician Ronald Reagan.

During Northam’s senior year in college, Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the Klan murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. His “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan was a nudge-nudge-wink-wink performance of racial animosity and an unsubtle endorsement of anti-black violence. It isn’t an accident that Reagan pushed the War on Drugs to new heights against African Americans, many of whom were trying to make real the promises of the civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, two of the most popular film series of the 1970s and ’80s, “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish,” sanctioned white male vigilante violence against black (and brown) bad guys.

Life imitates movies and vice versa. Three days before Christmas in 1984, Bernard Goetz — dubbed the “Death Wish gunman”— opened fire on four black youths who allegedly harassed him for money on a New York City subway. Two were shot in the back.

Goetz was acquitted by a grand jury. And he was widely praised for his vigilantism, which, in turn, inspired “Death Wish” actor Charles Bronson. A few months after the shooting, in Februrary 1985, a co-producer for the series told this paper that Bronson agreed to “escalated violence” in “Death Wish III” and described an entire neighborhood of vigilantes in the last scene, “like a Second World War battle.”

In the last few years, the Academy Awards have reckoned with the movie industry’s culpability in a variety of social ills, acknowledging #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. Now, it should help the nation look honestly at its storehouse of deeply ingrained racist imagery, and Hollywood’s leading role in portraying blackface and anti-black violence.

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Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the director of the Initiative for Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy.

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