How movies use Blackface to create nostalgia for the past

CHERYL THOMPSON ON BLACKFACE IN HOLLYWOOD: PAST AND PRESENT on November 20 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West). 6 pm. Free.

When old photos surfaced of Justin Trudeau wearing Brownface and Blackface shortly after the federal election campaign’s kickoff, it thrust Cheryl Thompson’s research into the spotlight.

It’s been quite the year for the scholar. In April, her first book, Beauty In The Box, was published, uncovering Black Canadian women’s history with hair. This summer, she received a two-year SSHRC Insight Development Grant, furthering her almost 10-year research into Canada’s largely unknown history of Blackface.

“First of all, nobody goes into studying Blackface thinking that one day they’ll be in the national and international media,” explains the assistant professor in the School of Creative Industries at Ryerson University. “I never thought that was gonna happen.”

Thompson’s talk will focus on the ways Blackface has been used in film to create nostalgia for a past that erases the cultural contributions of Black people. Before Trudeau, Blackface was being talked about in pop culture through critiques of YouTuber-turned-late-night host Lilly Singh, and how much her early viral success was owed to skits that appropriated Scaberian Black vernacular and culture. 

“She’s relying on Black culture, even though she’s not Black, to seem hip and cool,” explains Thompson. “The reality is that that’s not new. For me, it’s really about trying to tease out these tensions. It’s not really about blaming anyone. It’s more complicated than that. It’s really about this idea of what gets produced in popular culture, and how, in that production, does it erase the people who originated that thing in the first place.”

Ahead of her talk, we spoke with the professor about her upcoming book on the topic, the notorious movie missing from Disney+ and how racial caricature hasn’t changed much in Hollywood.

Your talk at TIFF will explore the historical roots of Blackface in popular culture and cinema. What should people expect? 

Expect to be shocked. The reason the talk will shock people is because they’ll begin to see where these things come from in the present, and that they’re not these innocuous acts of, “Oh! I didn’t know.” Actually, you do know, because you’ve been consuming these things since talking pictures began.

The first talking picture was the 1926 musical The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, who was celebrated at the time for being the “king of ‘Blackface’ performers.” Will this be a starting point?

I start somewhere else, and I’m not going to say where I start. I do mention The Jazz Singer, because you kind of can’t. Basically, I make a distinction between how the Al Jolson film moment and everything before then was still in a conversation with the theatre and the way Blackface would have appeared in the theatre. Everything after 1930s has nothing to do with Blackface in the theatre. Now this is Hollywood doing something else… it’s not just about film, it’s also become about the representations in general. 

What is it about Blackface, as it exists in screen-based culture, that enables this very cloying racial caricature?  

What happens when Blackface appears in film – from the 1930s onward – is it makes concerted efforts to nostalgize the past. The 1930s is known for the era of the plantation movies. Suddenly, there were all these movies telling you variations on slavery stories that we’d never seen before.

One of the films you’ll be talking about is the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. There’s the famous Blackface sequence where Bing Crosby sings Irving Berlin’s Abraham on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

That’s definitely the 19th century.

It’s celebrating this Civil War-era historical figure in a quaint farmhouse inn that’s only open during American public holidays. It’s literally Jim Crow tourism. Can you talk about that film?

I’m focusing on Holiday Inn but a different aspect, a different scene. Again, it speaks to how Blackface always gets used as a way to nostalgize the past. Think of when Justin Trudeau said he was doing Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) from how many years ago – a song from before he was even born. There’s something about the act of the caricature always locating Blackness in a past form. 

In this talk I’m trying to tease out conversations about the past and present, and how even in the past, they’re playing with the past before that past. They’re bringing it back in a different way that seems nice. The thing about movies [like Holiday Inn] is that they’re nice. They’re polite movies.

When you take someone like Elvis Presley in the 1950s, his Sun Records output was basically covering songs made by Black female blues singers. There’s this amnesia of this being music that actually came from this culture. Can you talk a bit about that disappearing act?

When I get into representations from the 1980s that were looking back to the 1950s, it’s about exactly that. What Blackface does is it erases the original authentic representation. I always love to go to Elvis because even if you look into pop music history they always tell you pop music started in 1956 with Presley. They locate it in this mid-50s moment, when actually that’s not true at all.

Last month, you wrote a widely circulated New York Times op-ed about the Canadian media’s tepid response to the Trudeau Brownface and Blackface controversies. When the Trudeau photos came out, how did conversations around your research change? 

It changed, because a lot of people were admitting their own ignorance: “I don’t understand. Why is this offensive?” I had a few people ask me that. “Yeah, I get they’re putting on Black skin, but the intention is not to harm people!” And what I always like to say is, again, through media messaging we believe that the only racist is a [Klu Klux] Klan member, or someone burning a cross outside your yard. 

“Well, no one complained,” people say. I don’t think people understand how power works… this is the son of a former prime minister whom everybody loves. Do you think this is a person you’re going to go in and complain to, or about? 

I think often, in Canada, we don’t really talk about those power dynamics. But they’re actually quite real. When I read about the situation happening with Don Cherry, I think, okay, if someone else on Hockey Night In Canada had made the same statement I don’t think there would be debates about them being punished or fired. Power is really at the centre of a lot of this: who has the authority to do and to act out any fantasy that they see fit and who doesn’t? And who has the authority to say something about it, and who doesn’t?

Disney recently launched the streaming service Disney+. Despite the company’s promise that it would make available its entire content library, there’s one film missing: Song Of The South. There’s been a lot of talk then about why the 1946 live-action/animated musical has been kept in the vaults. What’s your take?

I actually have a book coming out next year called Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, And The Politics of Loyalty. In that book, I talk about the trope of Uncle Tom, so I talk about Song Of The South, because Uncle Remus was an iteration of Uncle Tom, and I go into a little bit of debate of why that is, why they aren’t bringing that film out of the catalogue, and why that film probably will never be seen by a generation of people. And yet, attributes of that film have still been celebrated. Like the song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah is still in top-10 film lists for best songs of all time! And the mixed technology of live-action film with animation? They just did that in Little Mermaid. They took a cue right out of Song Of The South.

It’s one of those things: even though you haven’t seen Song Of The South, you still grow up and know about it. I’ve never seen it, but I know all about it. Isn’t that weird? That’s the power of movies. You literally might not ever have seen a movie, but it’s in the ether, and you still know aspects of it. That’s why film is so powerful, and why if you don’t have visual culture knowledge, why you can really be indoctrinated to believe a lot of negative things about people, based on just watching movies. 

Song of The South

Disney’s 1946 live action/animation hybrid Song Of The South was based on a collection of Uncle Remus stories.

Let’s talk about institutional power. You were a guest on Hyperallergic’s Art Movements podcast series I produced when I worked at the Gardiner Museum. During the episode, you talked about your experience going to school in the United States and being told by Black Americans that your Canadian Black identity wasn’t “real” or “authentic.” This led to the observation that many audiences, thanks to the gatekeepers of the Canadian mainstream media, haven’t seen an authentic version of Canadian Blackness.

What often happens in Blackface is that when white people do Blackface, they’re performing the performative Black [identity] that they have seen in movies and TV. A bit of my TIFF talk [touches on] Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. His entire character is a performative Black person. There was nothing about that character, in my opinion, that wasn’t offensive. And yet, one of the things I say in my talk, is that we should talk about why [that character] wasn’t blown up as a big thing. 

Nonetheless, it was still a caricature representation of Blackness, and a caricature has to come with Black “vernacular.” So you always have to signify Black through speech. Which is why, if you’re a Black person – a Black Canadian – and you go to America, they don’t think you’re a real Black person because you don’t sound like a Black person is supposed to sound like. 

What’s your take, then, on Samuel L. Jackson criticizing the casting of British actor Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele’s Get Out? You basically have an American Black actor telling a British Black actor that it’s not cool for him to play an American Black character. 

[Laughter] We’re having a really meta conversation. What has signified as Black in film has been African American culture… So when you see someone in film who is Black and suddenly they have a British accent, it throws people. Idris Elba, I believe, has only been able to let that accent out the more since he’s become famous. 

It’s complicated, in that sense, because the film culture that travels the globe is really American culture. And the same way, it’s circulating African American culture. I would bet you if you were to poll most Canadians, they know more about African American history than they do Black history in Canada. 

Just ask them about Black history in Canada from the 1960s onward. Most Canadians would draw blanks. Often when you see people do Blackface they defend it, because they say, “I’m doing Jay-Z, I’m not doing you. You’re Jamaican. I’m not making fun of you.” [Laughter] Or conversely, they’ll say, “Yes, I’m making fun of Jamaicans – but you’re born in Scarborough! You’re not Jamaican, even though that’s your cultural heritage.” So you see these people making these weird justifications for their behaviour based on where they locate authentic Black people to be.

These are everyday situations that most of us face with family, friends and co-workers that need to be continually unpacked and unlearned. Do you get frustrated this isn’t more widely understood?

What makes it difficult is the individual – whoever they are – has to want to see this as an issue, and to want to learn and understand and grow. You could take a whole bunch of people and put them through diversity training, and half of the people are gonna be like, “I see it now.” But the other half are going to resent that they have to learn that material. We want to assume that everyone is on board with the diversity narrative, but everybody is not on board with the diversity narrative. And I think it’s increasingly not just white Canadians, but other ethnic minorities who resent multiculturalism and diversity. They feel it’s impeding on them because they have to learn things about other people and other groups that they just don’t care to learn. 

Jordan Peterson resonated so much for exactly that reason. He was tapping into those people who feel as if the language police are somehow an attack on their personhood on their ability to be free. It really is about their sense that they don’t like the direction things are going. And what is the direction? It’s toward actually being inclusive. And when you’re actually an inclusive society, it means you don’t have any hierarchies. It means that power is not top-down. So there’s a segment of our society that wants to maintain a top-down hierarchy.

That’s why we have to dismantle hierarchies! 

It’s the truth! I think it was Angela Davis who talks about the reality that patriarchy is at the centre of everything. It’s even at the centre of racism… We have to really start imagining a world that isn’t a patriarchal world that includes men. Men don’t have to be patriarchs. They can choose something different. We can imagine a world where diversity is celebrated. But it’s more of a threatening proposition to imagine no patriarchy. That is a more frightening world for some people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content