03/08/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

Little Billy Blackface: The Academy Awards and the Reestablishment of the Social Order

A couple weekends back, the Academy Awards, since its inception in 1929, awarded just its 14th Black Oscar winner in an acting category. Octavia Spencer, who played the fiery and outspoken maid Minny Jackson in The Help, was a bit more gracious than her character but no less subdued as she began tearing up shortly after thanking her Alabama, Los Angeles, and Help families. This essay, however, is not about critiquing the role of Minny, Spencer's choice of playing a maid (or even Viola Davis' choice for that matter), or the subsequent awarding of a role that many felt was the same character the brilliant Hattie McDaniel played and earned an Oscar for some seven decades earlier. "Given the realities of racist imagery that continues to circulate in American society," it is easy to understand the mounting frustration with Hollywood's continued support of mammy characters that are always seemingly in service to White people (Mark Anthony Neal). I, taking a page directly from Neal's book, am call for an end to the "policing [of] black actresses" and actors. More than this, I am utterly appalled that the backlash from Billy Crystal's choice to don blackface, the Academy Awards willingness to display the tasteless act, and the lack of response from either has not met the amount of shame dished out to Spencer and Davis for playing Minny and Aibileen respectively.

Crystal, the evening's host, began the night with an opening montage that paid homage to many of the year's films, including but not limited to The Descendants, Moneyball, and The Help. But, it was Crystal's scene with pop star Justin Bieber that was most troubling. Spoofing Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Crystal, impersonating Sammy Davis Jr., randomly popped into the scene in full blackface. Out of the original film's context, the Davis impersonation, that is -- the blackface performance, offered troubling comedic relief that led to comedian Paul Scheer to aptly tweet, "Octavia Spencer's win shows just how far we've come since Billy Crystal performed in Blackface. #TheOscars."

More than pointing out Crystal's terrible decision, and even more than calling for the members of Black communities to hold the Academy Awards accountable, I am concerned with the larger politics and social implications surrounding the continued need for blackface performances.
Blackface minstrelsy, the insanely popular and troubling theatrical practice "in which white men caricatured blacks for sport and profit," laid the foundation for what we are calling Black popular culture and how it is currently produced, distributed, and consumed (Lott, Love & Theft 3). Pretending that slavery was amusing, whimsical, and natural, blackface, "the first formal public acknowledgment by whites of black culture," is perhaps the U.S.'s first distinctive form of pop culture, in which mostly White men donned black makeup in order to perform mostly for other White men (4). It was more than ridicule, mockery, and downplay, rather, for Lott, blackface minstrelsy was a highly complex "mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation" that among others allowed White men to try on Blackness, play with identity, and negotiate their own desires for Black (male) bodies (6).

Minstrelsy was such a popular theatrical practice that it embodied and interfered in North versus South racial and class politics, "made possible the formation of a self consciously white working class," and set up the scenario whereby caricatured Blackness became the gold, or dare I say black, standard, even for Black actors (8). In other words, many Black actors had to exaggerate or transform their own Black skin by blackening up with burnt cork, grease paint, and shoe polish to meet what became the most authentic form of "Blackness." I imagine some chose willingly, others were forced, and still many chose to avoid blackface altogether, but the fact that White fantasies of a certain performance of Blackness, however perverted and distorted, could become "authentic" and in demand speaks volumes about how Blackness, Black culture and Black bodies are understood and consumed in the culture industry.

Thinking of blackface beyond simple mock and ridicule, and in terms of "panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure," as well as cultural cannibalism, expropriation, appropriation, and domination, allows us to see the incredible amount of cultural angst and uneasiness at play when entertainers choose to employ the troubling art form (6). In a world that continuously and increasingly challenges the validity of race, the implications of socially constructed identities, and one that questions whether or not we are in a post-race moment, it is my larger contention that the use of blackface in the contemporary moment is an attempt to address the mounting anxiety surrounding race by trying to sure up, that is make black and white, the vast gray area of race, racial formation, and race politics. At the height of blackface's popularity the White working class invoked racial superiority in part to deal with their class insecurities and their "fears of being displaced from work by blacks," which allowed the White working class to establish an identity both distinct from and related to the very Black people that were being caricatured (71).

In no uncertain terms, I am arguing, though with a different set of economic and political concerns, the anxieties and uncertainties around identity and social status at play then are similar to those at play now, fostering the kinds of cultural milieus where blackface minstrelsy and blackface masks are seemingly needed reestablish the social order. After all, masks reveal as much as they conceal, and in this case what is being exposed is the way in which masks allow the individual behind them to remind the world he is not what is being shown, and, perhaps more importantly, what is being shown will NEVER be the individual behind the mask.