Memo to Billy Crystal

Blackface is not okay. Ever.

In case you missed it, the actor and comedian decided to don blackface as he did a Sammy Davis Jr. impression in his opening sequence for the Oscars last night. Despite the fact that this impression was apparently a popular bit when Crystal was on Saturday Night Live back in the day, frankly I don’t think it matters. It’s still a historically racist act that’s been practiced in theater and film as a way to stereotype black people — and regardless of comedic intentions, that history and hurt it’s caused the black community trumps. The Academy should have known better than to allow it.

As the media shitstorm develops around this, I just hope it becomes more of a learning moment for the Hollywood industry and  Academy rather than an opportunity for even more racist bullshit to come out of the woodwork, which so often does when something like this happens.

Pic via Colorlines

Join the Conversation

  • Amanda M.

    I am curious as to why this is considered blackface. The reason I ask is because when I think blackface, I think those horrible, grimacing caricatures from the 50s and earlier. When I think of Billy Crystal doing a Sammy Davis Jr. impression, I think “Billy Crystal doing a Sammy Davis Jr. impression” – i.e. a comic known for doing a better-than-usual impression of a beloved icon, and doing that impression while looking like that person. (Full disclosure: I haven’t even seen the offending material, but I remember the SNL days, so take that as you will.)

    I’m guessing it’s the fact that he did this during an Oscars where a movie up for a major reward involves the civil rights movement, and thus people are more sensitive to that kind of questionable act.

    … err, and edited to include: I mean “sensitive” as in “watchfully attuned” vs. “sensitive” as in “god, why do you have to be so -sensitive- about everything!!” like it’s some sort of indictment. I have zero desire to come off as trolly!!

    If a white comedian does a good impression of a specific black icon (not “generic black dude ha ha ain’t black folk funny lol” *sigh*), is it automatically racist? Is it more or less racist to do it while ostensibly looking like that person (i.e. blackface)?

    I humbly request schooling. Please be assured, I am delighted to be proved wrong in this, and have no specific hard-held stance. I’m genuinely curious.

    I look forward to the The More You Know™ star zooming across my brain. :)

  • rat_bastard

    To me this is not blackface, this is Impersonation. I would also rank Robert Downey Jr’s role in Tropic Thunder and Donald Faison’s use of whiteface in a Scrubs daydream as inoffensive uses of blackface. Using Makeup to lampoon a race in some horribly racist way is offensive but I don’t see what Billy Crystal did as being offensive.

    • Amanda M.

      Eddie Murphy did such an amazing whiteface Old Jewish Guy™ in Coming to America that I didn’t even know it was him until the end credits rolled. Based on the image above, that’s an equally amazing makeup and prosthetics job for Billy; this is why it’s hard for me to see the offense on first glance. He’s not just smearing pitch-black makeup on his face and doing hackneyed minstrelsy, that looks like a quality special effects job.

    • Noelle

      Delighted that somebody else mentioned RDJ’s satirical use of blackface in “Tropic Thunder.” I think perhaps that such use of blackface – to poke fun at the comedians and actors who use it to seriously portray black characters despite its horribly offensive history – is the one exception to the anti-blackface policy. Fair use is exactly what I’d call it. Bravo.

  • Dan

    Why is every case of a white actor playing a black character (or impersonating a black actor, in this case) the same act performed in the traveling minstrel shows?

    Or, put differently, is it possible to perform a racist portrayal of blacks without using the makeup? If a comedian mocks the stereotype of black people by imitating a stereotypical black person’s voice, but doesn’t have makeup on, isn’t that just as much blackface as if he was using makeup? Isn’t it the ‘reinforcing (negative) stereotypes’ aspect that is the necessary and sufficient condition?

  • jo

    I agree with Amanda M. This doesn’t seem like blackface to me – which I thought was just ridicule in the form of “hey look, I’m a generic black person, aren’t all black people ridiculous?” This is one specific person doing an impression of another specific person. It seems like that should be an okay thing to do?

    Vanessa, is there ever a situation where it’s okay for a white person to do an impression of someone who is not a white person? If not, why? If there are situations where it’s okay what kinds of things could they do to alter their presentation (appearance/voice/mannerisms) that would be okay?

    I admit I am incredibly ignorant of this topic and am happy to be told why I’m wrong. I, too, look forward to The More You Know™ star.

  • Angel H.