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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Introduction, Page 4

The classic minstrel show may be gone, but blackface is a living international tradition. In his 2000 film Bamboozled,  Spike Lee commented on this durability and its effect on African American performance. Here, Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson apply burnt cork to their faces. (African American performers in the 19th and 20th centuries often had to black up to play "themselves" in front of white audiences.)

Another clip from Bamboozled features Glover's and Davidson's characters Mantan (named after the actor Mantan Moreland) and Sleep 'n' Eat (named after the stereotypical propensities of the minstrel) performing indefinite speech, a fantasy of telepathic communication between African Americans, and of a secret "code" opaque to whites. 

Controversial 21st century South African rap group die Antwoord also repeatedly plays with blackface in its music videos.  Fatty Boom Boom deploys full-body blackface and whiteface, with singer Yolandi sometimes appearing as a living "gollywog" doll. Another die Antwoord video, Ugly Boy, features a man in blackface, and an Afro wig wearing a sweat shirt emblazoned with the words "Hi My Name is God."

Yet another international example of contemporary blackface is Australian comedian Chris Lilley's rapper character s.Mouse, from his Angry Boys series (2011). Here, viewers are first introduced to s.Mouse, through a satire on hip-pop culture with the absurdly titled single "Slap My Elbow". Another s.Mouse video, the Animal Zoo, features women dressed up in animal costumes in a Safari themed landscape that makes a parallel between women and non-human animals.

Other examples of contemporary blackface include a tragicomic scene in the prime-time cable show Madmen (2009), in which Roger Sterling blacks up to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" at his daughter's wedding, or  Billy Crystal reprising his blackface impersonation of Sammy Davis Jr. (from his television special, Don't Get Me Started) for
the 2012 Academy Awards.

And so on. Blackface as a performance practice is still very much a part of mainstream popular culture.


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