Sardonic Sistah Says

Observations… Ruminations… Ponderances… & Rants from Another Perspective

Performing Race

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A friend sent me and email with a photograph and the question:  Who is this black actor?  I studied the photo, putting my face within inches of the computer screen. The face looked familiar but I couldn’t place it.   After a few minutes of scrutinizing it I finally gave up and scrolled down for the page for the answer.


“STFU! No!  For real?  Nooooooooo!”

“Yeah, that was a really good make up job,” she emailed back.  “Who would have guessed that it was Robert Downey Jr under that makeup?”

Who would have thought it was make up?  

In the movie, Downey plays the character Kirk Lazarus, a white man cast to play a black soldier. Downey says the intent was to satire over-the-top actors, not African Americans.

“If it’s done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago,” Downey told Entertainment Weekly magazine. “If you don’t do it right, we’re going to hell.”

Black actors like Eddie Murphy and the Wayans brothers can don white make up and portray white males and females on screen for laughs but white performers can’t do the same without African Americans looking for subtext. The caricatures that have been perpetrated on African American’s image by whites as minstrelsy from vaudeville to radio to movies through the 1950s has made many blacks brace themselves when whites decide to tackle African American characters. Viewing our history through the white lens has never been good.

I examined the photo again and I sure hope the makeup artist wins an Oscar for this work next year. From the picture he looks like an African American male circa 1975.  The thing that really sold me was the lips; the lips look real.   They have the two tone brown-pinkness that African Americans have around the outline, the color was captured perfectly (he has the Bobby Brown ashyness, though) It’s something subtle but it added to the authenticity.    He looks like a black man and, because he’s a really good actor, he could probably act like a black man.  Then I caught myself.

“Act like a black man.”

If race is just a social construct (so chant the 21st Century race deconstructionists) then perhaps we should begin to reattribute behaviors and attitudes that we take for granted as being racially linked. Instead, we see still see certain actions and instantly say, oh, a black person would never behave like that or white people always do that.  To some a person’s comportment is tied to the genetic makeup that they share with others in their group.

Following the line of those who see race as social construct there are those who view race as performance art.  A few years ago Asian American artist Nikki S. Lee had a series of art shows that deconstructed American culture and race.  Her 2001 book “The Project” showed Lee posing in different situations, made up to blend end with her racial surroundings.  In the Ohio project she donned a blonde wig and spread herself lackadaisically across a Chevy while a white guy stood beside her and smile for the camera.  Among a bevy of African Americans she puts on a different blonde wig and brown body makeup for the Hip Hop project.  In yet another picture she wears a school girl outfit amidst a group of young Asian girls also in uniform.  In each photo she challenges you to pick her out and cut her from the pack but she is part of the landscape, blended in with attitude, dress and looks as those surrounding her.

Lee practices positive racial art but there are those who exploit black images for the worst. Charles Knipp is one of whose performances deny African Americans their full humanity by skewing black womanhood to buffoonery. But to be fair, some African Americans have become the Bert Williams of today. Some rap artists have also began to exploit the negative stereotypes in the black community and try to elevate it as “black culture”.

African Americans aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to their own exploiting stereotypes of black images to make a buck. Last fall actor/comedian Rob Schneider came under fire for his portrayal of an Asian minister in the movie Chuck and Larry.

I’m willing to view Downey’s movie before making a snap judgment. In a new century of racial politics and performance it’s not what you are born with but what you do with it that really counts.







Written by rentec

8 March, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Posted in images, stereotypes

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