What happens when black actors and directors today adapt the concept of “blackface”? This was the underlying research question for Chesya Burke’s presentation, “The Appropriation of Blackface by Black Creators,” which she had developed as part of a film course she has taken with Prof. Willie Tolliver.
After a brief summary of the historical development of blackface performances, Chesya presented several clips from films such as W. D. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With The Wind” to show the use of blackface in cinema. As Chesya argued, while most people today agree that these historical representations are offensive and racist, it is less clear how to view the role of black actors adopting these stereotypical performance styles. To illustrate contemporary adaptations, Chesya showed examples from the film “The Help” and from films by Tyler Perry and Cuba Gooding Junior.
Chesya used these examples as evidence for her main argument that the use of blackface is connected to social power and class. Historically, so Chesya, white actors and producers created and produced negative images of blacks for lower class white audiences. Today, a “co-opted” black elite in the entertainment business reinforces negative images of blacks for poorer black audiences, with the “real-life repercussions” that young black people take the caricatures of black women and men in these films for real.
Chesya’s well-delivered and provocative talk sparked a lively discussion in the audience and will probably prompt a few people to watch some of the more recent films in a different light.