We all know of the historical stain the United States has of “Blackface” — the portrayal of Black people by Whites who darken their skin with shoe polish, greasepaint or burnt cork. In many minstrel shows, white performers would go as far as to paint on enlarged lips and other exaggerated features.
It peaked in popularity during an era in the United States when demands for civil rights by recently emancipated slaves triggered racial hostility.
According to History.com, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, an actor born in New York, is considered the “Father of Minstrelsy.” After Rice went down South and observed slaves, he reportedly developed a black stage character called “Jim Crow” in 1830.
Using quick dance moves, an exaggerated African-American vernacular and buffoonish behavior, Rice founded the new racist genre blackface which became central to American entertainment in the North and South.
White performers in blackface played characters that perpetuated a range of negative stereotypes about African Americans including being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, horny, criminal or cowardly. Below is a photo of Shirley Temple in blackface.
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Animation has been “Blackvoicing” for years
Recently, long running animated series The Simpsons and Family Guy will reportedly no longer use white actors to voice non-white roles. The announcements have come amidst National uproar surrounding racial tensions in America.
Let us introduce you to a new term – Blackvoicing. It’s simply the portrayal of non-white characters by white actors.
While Fox and Family Guy producers have declined comment, producers for The Simpsons said that the show, having completed its 31st season, is ready for broader changes “moving forward.”
Perhaps most notorious for The Simpsons is its character Apu. Documentary The Problem with Apu was released in 2017.
The film makes the case that the character has left a damning legacy for Indian Americans. “The Simpsons stereotypes all races, the problem is, we didn’t have any other representation.”
With so many of The Simpsons Black supporting characters previously voiced by white actors (Hank Azaria), including Homer Simpson’s workmate, Carl Carlson and the Simpson’s family physician, Dr. Hibbert (Harry Shearer), the new casting policy may represent an unprecedented opportunity for actors of color.
Other The Simpsons characters affected will presumably be Officer Lou, Bumblebee Man (also voiced by Azaria), Dr. Hibbert (voiced by Harry Shearer), and Manjula (Tress MacNeille).
Actor and comedian Mike Henry posted to twitter to voice his departure from the role of Cleveland Brown, a black character who has appeared as a fixture on the series since its debut in 1999.
“It’s been an honor to play Cleveland on ‘Family Guy’ for 20 years,” Henry wrote, “I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
Henry also plays Cleveland’s stepson Rallo Tubbs and Hispanic housekeeper Consuela on the series.
In the wake of so many recent police killings of black people, many other popular shows seem to be appreciating the need for diversified casting and better representation in media.
Alison Brie, who has voiced Diane Nguyen on Netflix’s Bojack Horseman has issued an apology on instagram. “I now understand that people of color should always voice people of color. We missed a great opportunity to represent the Vietnamese-American community accurately and respectfully, and for that, I am truly sorry.”
Actresses Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell seem to echo Brie’s concerns for the future, both of which have stated they will stop playing biracial characters on animated shows. Slate, who has played the character Missy on Netflix show Big Mouth has stated that she has been “engaging in an erasure of Black people” by playing the role.
Chicago Producer Mike Ware had this to say on the subject: “While it’s a nice gesture and I’m glad it’s finally happening, this is overdue. It’s practically a version of blackface… There’s no excuse for why it took so long…The actors and companies in these roles are not getting a pat on the back from me about it. I’d rather see justice than performative acts.”
Many will argue that a voice is a voice. That it has no color. All one has to do is look at the portrayal of Apu and realize that this an oversimplification. Any voice actor will tell you the work they put into bringing an animated character to life.
In a country with so many talented actors, isn’t it time for an ethnic actor to have the opportunity to voice an ethnic character?
Laura Day is a Reel New York correspondent. Contact her at Laura@reelchicago.com