What do these two pictures have in common? Before we get to that question, let’s turn to a literary moment created by America’s greatest living writer.
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” This is the chilling opening sentence to Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise, but there’s literally more to these two sentences than meets the eye. That Morrison foregrounds the question of race right from the start of Paradise is no surprise; in both her fiction and critical writings, the Nobel Prize winner has established herself as an insightful, challenging, and morally committed writer on the toxic history of race and racism in America. And Paradise is no exception. It tells the story of Ruby, a fictional town in Oklahoma founded by African Americans escaping the racism of the post-Civil War south, and a group of women, each fleeing her own painful past, who have set up a kind of commune at an abandoned Catholic school for Indians outside of town. It is these women who are the targets of the attack referred to in those first two sentences.
As readers first made their way into the novel past that striking opening, each came to learn who these women were, where they came from, and, in keeping with that first sentence, each learned just who the “white girl” is. Or at least they thought they did. At a book discussion I attended shortly after the book was published, those of us in attendance were surprised to learn that we had all confidently assumed a different woman was the “white girl,” and we spent some time trying to “prove” each of our cases until it began to dawn on us that Morrison had played a kind of trick. The truth is, she never identifies any of the characters as “white.” All of our assumptions turned out to be just that—assumptions based on a variety of what we realized were really just stereotypes: a character’s name; a description of her hair; how she talked.
In interviews, Morrison explained that she set this trap as a way of getting readers to confront these assumptions as well as the key question of “what do we think we know when we know someone’s race?” Morrison’s answer: not much. “’Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing,’” she told Brent Staples in Time magazine. So is she saying that race doesn’t matter? Not, I think, in the evasive way parodied by Stephen Colbert back in Colbert Report days when his mock-right wing character would claim that “I don’t see race.” That first sentence in Paradise belies the whole idea of some kind of naïve racial blindness. Race matters, and racism kills, but as Morrison also shows us, not only does race not tell us anything reliable or important about a person, it actually interferes with learning about someone, about really seeing a person.
And that brings us back to the opening question that started this blog entry, as well as the history of the movies in general and James Bond in particular. Movie fans probably immediately recognized the picture on the right: it’s the vaudeville superstar Al Jolson appearing as Jakie Rabinowitz appearing as a minstrel singer in The Jazz Singer, one of the most influential early “talkies.” Only a few opera fans might recognize the person on the left. It’s the tenor Johan Botha appearing in the title role of Otello, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 opera based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Like Jolson, Botha is a singer; also like Jolson, he is appearing in black face, not like Jolson, in 1927, but in a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City . . . in 2008!
Over the summer, I wrote a couple of blog entries on the topic of “Believing is Seeing,” of how the movies have played into our active perception of race and racial identity, focusing in particular on the practice of “blackface,” a prominent part of American popular entertainment until the second half of the 20th century. Over the past couple of weeks, the subject of blackface has returned in the world of grand opera with the Met’s announcement that in its current production of Otello, the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko would break with “tradition” and appear without blackface. This announcement follows a recent controversy involving a related practice of racial mimicry known as “yellowface” and the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of those artists’ 1885 comic opera The Mikado, set in Japan and, again “traditionally,” featuring “white” actors made up to “look Japanese.”
As all of my scare quotes are meant to suggest, both of these recent developments not only point out how the imprimatur of “high culture” can allow racism to masquerade as “artistic heritage” (with to my ears and eyes echoes of similar arguments made about the Confederate battle flag), but they also bring us back to Morrison’s pointed challenge and the question of why race is so important in visual culture, and for students of American cinema, the history of the movies.
It’s no great revelation to point out that the history of American movies is equally a history of racial impersonation, combining the offensive, the condescending, and the just plain ridiculous, from Richard Barthelmess as the “Chinese” character Cheng Huan in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl from 1919 to the myriad white actors who have portrayed American Indians in countless Westerns, such as the German immigrant Henry
Brandon in the role of the Comanche chief Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), to the truly ludicrous: The Searcher’s star John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (Dick Powell 1956). Orson Welles played off this troubled history by casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican federal agent in his 1958 Touch of Evil. Then one
of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Heston’s influence was crucial in Welles getting Universal to allow him to make the film, and it’s hard not to see a knowing wink in the director’s understanding of how outrageous the casting is.
The question all of these examples raise in the light of Morrison’s novel is “why?” Why does Otello/Othello require blackface? Shakespeare’s character is a “Moor,” a historical ethnicity that combines Islamic faith with a diverse cultural background involving peoples from (what we know call) the Middle East and north Africa. In the history of European and American productions of both the play and Verdi’s opera, however, “Moor” has come to mean simply “black,” and it somehow became important to make sure this character was identified not just by the words spoken or sung in the text but by a crude visual reminder. “Remember, he’s black!” the makeup keeps telling the audience.
But is he “really” black? Is anyone “really” black? Or white, or yellow, or red? Again, this is not an argument that race doesn’t matter; it does, but the damage done by racism is built on a foundation of sand. Race is both real and it isn’t. A literary text like Paradise makes this especially evident; like Othello, all the characters in her book are make-believe, and like Shakespeare’s character, they are all made out of words. Why is race, out of all the possible signifiers of identity for Othello, then so foregrounded?
Consider the related case of Hamlet. Currently in London, the Prince of Denmark is being played . . . by a Briton, Benedict Cumberbatch! But how can audiences accept this obviously English actor as Danish? Is it because they are both “white”? Meaning what, exactly? Hamlet is identified nowhere in the play as “white.” The play, of course, was written by an Englishman and only takes place in Denmark, but then why does The Mikado, an opera written as well by Englishmen and set in a foreign country, require a racial masquerade? Is the most salient distinction between English and Japanese cultures really certain facial features?
The operative concept really is what we mean by “really.” But of course fictional characters aren’t “really” anything, and race itself is one of our culture’s most pernicious social fictions. Again, that doesn’t mean race isn’t real in terms of its effects and how people react to how they perceive and interpret the fiction of race (as I discussed in another blog post about the shooting of Sam DuBose). It does mean that how we cast movies is not governed by iron-clad rules about what characters “really are.” Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class: these are all signifiers of identity that we can manipulate in the way that Morrison does in the opening example above. By not specifying which particular character she is referring to as the “white girl,” she makes us as readers more consciously aware of how the fiction of racial identification works as a part of how we “really” interpret the world.
Which, finally, brings us to James Bond, another fictional character who isn’t “really” anything. A few weeks ago the British writer Anthony Horowitz, who recently published his own James Bond novel fifty years after the death of original author Ian Fleming, tweeted that the British actor Idris Elba, who had been the subject of fan speculation and campaigning about whether he might be the next actor to play James Bond onscreen after Daniel Craig is done, was “too street” to play the part. Many on the Internet read the racial code word “street” for what it really meant, and after much criticism and backlash Horowitz apologized, claiming he had only meant the Elba had mainly played “gritty” characters.
This wasn’t the first race-based reaction to the idea of Elba playing Bond, an idea apparently first floated by former Sony head Amy Pascal in one of the leaked company emails that surfaced last winter. The conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh weighed in last December in good Internet troll fashion, invoking the “truth” about Bond’s identity: “We had 50 years of white Bonds because Bond is white. Bond was never black.” But Bond was also Scottish in the novels—or at least, he was in the novels written after the first Bond film Dr. No appeared (Terence Young 1962), when Bond was played by the Scottish actor Sean Connery. In spite of all this, no Scottish actor has played him since. This gambit of protesting “politically correct” casting may have reached its nadir with Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly’s bizarre argument in 2013 that Santa Claus “just is white.”
Such arguments undeniably underestimate the capacity of the human imagination, but in their race panic they also limit the power of art. Last Sunday, the actor Viola Davis gave a moving acceptance speech after becoming the first black actor to win the Emmy for Best Actress in a TV Drama for her work on Shonda Rhime’s How to Get Away With Murder. She spoke to the barriers that have stood and still stand in the way of black women being considered for roles in movies and TV because of a limited imagination on the part of those in charge of production when it comes to thinking about what characters “really” are. Her character on the show—a criminal defense attorney and law professor—is “really” the character that Davis creates for the show. This doesn’t mean race is irrelevant at all—her character is a criminal defense attorney and law professor and also a black woman. That same limited imagination also fuels a reluctance to sponsor movies and television about a wider range of cultural experiences connected to race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity.
There is a rich tradition already of filmmakers who have played with the idea of what a character “really” is. To give just one example, in his 2007 “biography” of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, Todd Haynes cast six different actors in the role of Bob Dylan, from white men young and old to an eleven year old black actor who played Bob Dylan as Woody Guthrie to the Australian actor Cate Blanchett, a woman who gave the most “realistic” performance of Dylan.
Haynes took the question of “what is Bob Dylan really like” seriously and playfully, leaving the sentence “Bob Dylan is really . . . “ forever blank (and forever young?), and therefore forever open. Maybe it’s time to open up James Bond as well. And maybe even Santa Claus!