Monday, July 4, 2011

"Come Fly With Me": When is it okay for two rich, white Englishmen to wear black face?

I've been meaning to catch "Little Britain" creators David Walliams and Matt Lucas' latest comic series, the mockumentary "Come Fly With Me" on BBC America (Saturdays, 11:30 p.m. ET) . Saturday night I did. And...well...


"Come Fly With Me" generated some controversy when it debuted in Britain. As in their earlier hit series, Walliams and Lucas spend a fair amount of time in prosthetics creating oddball characters. And in this case, several of the characters are of color, like Precious Little above, leading to complaints of racial insensitivity.  In a spot on review, the Guardian's Balaji Ravichandran offers:
Imagine the BBC commissioning a new television series composed of the following elements: a rich Middle-Eastern billionaire who owns the busiest airport in the country, but who is so mean and stingy that you have to pay to access the safety equipment; an Asian man (with a beard, of course) who attempts to enter the country using the passport of a white teenage girl (which the white, racist and xenophobic immigration officer allows); a middle-aged black woman played yet again by a "blacked-up" white man, who utters "Praise the Lord" at the end of every sentence, is too lazy to run her coffee shop and who spends her time shopping for cheap bargains at the airport; two Japanese schoolgirls – you guessed it right, white men with modified eyelids, eyebrows and lip-curves – waiting anxiously at the airport for an ostensibly minor celebrity's autograph and photos; and of course, the token sexist Muslim who, in his inability to talk in complete sentences, calls every female "a bitch" and sexualises anything in a skirt. Read more...
It is easy to think the problem here is simply black face or brown face--that it is always wrong for white people to darken their faces and take on mannerisms associated with black, Latino, Native or Asian people, particularly for humor. I'm not sure I agree with that. I think it depends on context. I have seen Tracey Ullman get it right, as in the following clip satirizing America's aggrandizing of white celebrities who adopt rescue poor, poor, black children from their terrible, Third World countries.

And I actually thought Robert Downey Jr.'s turn in "Tropic Thunder" was hilarious. In that case, the joke wasn't "Aren't colored folks and their culture funny?". It was: Imagine the privilege and ridiculousness of a white, Australian actor who wants to embody a middle aged black man as his next Oscar-baiting star turn, refusing to break character and culling "black wisdom" from the Jefferson's theme song; and imagine the cluelessness of the Hollywood executives who would hire him without blinking an eye. (The film had other racial fails; Downey's makeup just wasn't one of them in my opinion.)


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