Literal Dehumanization: Erasure of the Black Face in Hollywood
Erasing the faces of black people, with a handful of notable exceptions, has been the way Hollywood works for years. If they weren’t villains or criminals, buffoons or drug addicts, Hollywood found other ways to bring black people onto the silver screen only to get them off again as quickly as possible.
The term “dead bro walking” was coined by black viewers to describe how long from the moment a black person appeared on screen in a film until the story called for them to die, often gruesomely. Hollywood has gotten “enlightened” enough, for want of a better phrase, to use that trope mostly to make fun of itself these days. But the pattern of erasure finds a new way to manifest itself. Or it goes away — a little — for a while, then comes back strong, often following the ebb and flow of politics in the US. The rules never change, though. They are as follows:
The bigger the name of the black actor in a speculative or science fiction role, the more likely we are to see their face. If they’re popular enough to be a household name, it’s almost like their blackness stops being a liability because people — even white people — will come to their movies in droves and fill up the studio’s Scrooge McDuck money vaults. That’s the definition of “bankable.”
If an actor is a black man whose looks and talent make him a big draw, it’s a guarantee he’ll get a face role. Women can benefit from the same effect. They are also likely to be seen as close to how they appear in real life. Being at the top of the desirability ladder can happen to black actors of any skin color. Any actor who is lower echelon in Hollywood, though, has a higher likelihood of the actor’s true face and skin being hidden under makeup and prosthetics. An actor who isn’t a marquee draw or who hasn’t had many starring roles is pretty much a given for being in prosthetics or costume that hide them altogether.
What makes a marquee draw for a black actor? There’s no one true formula. Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Samuel L. Jackson are all actors whose names frequently guarantee a blockbuster. Denzel is usually cast in villainous roles or roles of great dignity. Will showed up through the nineties in action and sci-fi roles. Samuel L. Jackson has played subservient roles, junkies, down-on-his-luck guys, and Nick Fury. The three of them do not share a skin tone. Whoopi Goldberg had a number of popular films in the ’80s. Halle Berry did in the ’90s, and those two women are opposite sides of the skin tone spectrum. Lupita Nyong’o and Quvenzhane Wallis have recently joined the ranks of actors whose names will get audiences in seats, and their skin tones are at opposite ends of the spectrum as well.
It boils down to two things: the obvious institutional racism that Hollywood has been excusing with transparent dodges like “black skin is harder to photograph and light” for decades, which also supports the fact that Hollywood has a timetable for how frequently a black actor can win an Oscar, and the fact that Hollywood doesn’t like to take risks on unknowns, especially if they’re not white.
This has been true for decades, and nowhere so egregiously as the sci-fi and fantasy genres.
We never got to see his face, but the body work done for the terrifying Alien Queen Xenomorph was done by a black actor: Nigerian Bolaji Badejo. The more popular Yaphet Kotto got the face role.
Whoopi Goldberg gets her face and beautiful locks showing as wise and powerful Guinan. Mae Jemison, who is an astronaut in real life, also got to appear human. Michael Dorn, however, ends up on that fuzzy border between looking human and not, by landing the role of the Klingon Worf. Levar Burton, known previously for his roles on Roots and Reading Rainbow, acted the entire run of the series with his eyes covered for the role of Geordi LaForge (yes, I know he was blind in honor of a blind fan). Big name actor Avery Brooks got a role where we could see his face on Deep Space Nine. Voyager did a lot better with diversity, having a black Vulcan, a black Klingon, a Native American crew member and an Asian crew member with minimal obscuring makeup. Of course, to do less would be disrespecting the vision that the franchise’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, created. From the first series with Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, Roddenberry had always wanted his vision of the future to be a diverse and inclusive one.
Marvel Cinematic Universe:
Samuel L. Jackson gets to be Nick Fury, only wearing something that covers part of his face because there’s an in-story reason for it.
The first Thanos post credits in Avengers was portrayed by black actor Daimon Poitier. He has since been replaced by white Josh Brolin in subsequent appearances.
Idris Elba got (despite a lot of racist flailing) the face role of Heimdall in the Thor films, but lesser known Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje played the inhuman Kurse.
Don Cheadle does not hide his face as Rhodey in the Iron Man films, nor does Anthony Mackie when he joins the Marvel stable as the Falcon.
Zoe Saldana, who was a mocap blue CGI alien in Avatar (criticized for making the Na’vi Magical Negroes with a coat of alien slapped on), got painted green from head to toe, and given feature-harshing prosthetics to play Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. At least she wasn’t full body CGI this time.
Although the X-Men films are currently in Fox’s wheelhouse, Oscar winner Halle Berry, who portrayed Storm from the first film until Days of Future Past, complained that due to how few roles there are for black actors, she was reduced to playing this role. She backpedaled on that remark due to fan ire, but the lack of roles for black actors is a common thread when black actors speak on the roles they take.
The popularity and draw of an actor is not an absolute guarantee either. Sony, whose leaked emails revealed their racism, dehumanized Jamie Foxx as Electro in the second of the Amazing Spider-Man films. While the role is a “race lift,” inserting an actor of color into a role that was previously written as white, Electro has blue skin and looks a lot less human.
Despite mostly working in animated fare, Disney does the same thing. The brown people don’t get to be human very long in most of their films, even when they’re the stars.
In The Emperor’s New Groove, Kuzco the Peruvian emperor spends only the first and last seven or so minutes of the film human. The rest, he’s a llama. That’s even with a white person, David Spade, having done the voice acting for the South American title character.
In Brother Bear, Inuit Kenai spends the first few minutes of the film as a human before becoming a bear. In the sequel, the same thing happens to his love interest. Worse, they make the choice to remain bears — giving the message that it’s better to be a wild animal than a brown person!
In The Princess and the Frog, we get Oprah Winfrey, a worldwide known name, voicing Tiana’s mother. We get Keith David as a human despite being the supernaturally powered bad guy, and Tiana — the star — spending the first and last ten minutes of her film as a frog. Notable about this film is that Tiana’s name was originally going to be Maddy, but due to concerns about the name sounding like a slave’s name, they changed it.
In The Lion King, we get no humans at all. James Earl Jones is the bankable name here and he gets the juicy Mufasa role, but Robert Guillaume, Cheech Marin, and Whoopi Goldberg are a baboon and two hyenas respectively. The main role of Simba went to Matthew Broderick. Even when the story is set in Africa, the black actors are relegated to the background. Disney has just made news for making a movie about a white father who claimed disputed territory in Africa for his daughter so she can be a princess.
In The Little Mermaid, whose racist references I have mentioned here before, the only black actor, Samuel E. Wright, ends up playing Sebastian the crab — not one of the beautiful merpeople nor one of the humans.
As Chris Rock famously said as part of a commentary on how difficult it is to find roles for a black actor, a black man can aspire to play a zebra, as he did in the Madagascar series, or a donkey, as Eddie Murphy did in the Shrek series.
DreamWorks just released Home, a movie with a black female lead. It was predicted to flop, hard, but had a spectacular opening weekend — proof positive with money in the bank that representation matters, and there are audiences willing to come to the theater in droves to fill the seats even if the main character is not white. But as news of the DVD cover broke, indicating Oh the alien would be on the cover rather than Tip, the black human heroine, Twitter trended the hashtag #WhereIsTip to protest her erasure. DreamWorks took the hint and have since said that Tip will be on the DVD cover. Black audiences are less willing than ever to take erasure lying down, and studios are beginning to realize black viewers’ money is as green as anyone else’s.
Beautiful Gina Torres seems to always appear as herself. But in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the erasure of black people takes old form and new. The first Slayer was African and was forced into becoming the slayer against her will — and the character was covered in makeup that made her appear savage and animalistic. Black Slayer Nikki was murdered by Spike, who then took her jacket as his trophy. Then there’s the much lauded “Once More With Feeling” musical episode, in which the dancing demon shows up in Sunnyvale to make everyone sing about everything. The actor who portrayed him, Hinton Battle, is black, but the character, Sweet, was coded as black along with the makeup that made him appear inhuman and demonic.
I’ve gone for this walk down black erasure and dehumanization memory lane so it is clear there is a pattern here. Before anyone thinks to suggest “maybe these actors are all taking the roles they want/like,” don’t. Racebending.com debunked that myth a while back, indicating that Hollywood casting calls ask specifically for white actors for certain roles and relegate actors of color to lesser roles, which often cover up their brown skin and faces. The less human the better, by all examples.
Star Wars has taken its fair share of criticism about racism in its long history.
As with the other studios and franchises, the lesser known actors get the roles that hide their blackness. Ahmed Best was the voice behind Jar-Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel films, as well as Achk Med-Beq in Attack of the Clones, and he has had voice roles in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and various Star Wars video games. The Binks character was criticized for his broken manner of speech, which was seen as racist by many.
The bigger name black actors get the face roles once again. Billy Dee Williams got to appear onscreen with his handsome moustache as the rogue Lando Calrissian. Samuel L. Jackson asked for a role in Star Wars and was given not only the face role of Mace Windu, but the series’ first purple lightsaber and a detailed backstory to explain it.
Now, here we are in 2015, thirty-six years after the Alien example above, and Star Wars has not only perpetuated the pattern; they’ve made it worse.
There is no denying that Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o is a well-known actor, revered for her great beauty as well as her acting chops. There was a lot of eager speculation about what sort of role she’d play.
The news broke that she would be doing voice acting for an all CGI performance, and there was a little disappointment, but curiosity as well.
Then Variety released the art of what Lupita’s character, Maz Kanata, is supposed to look like. She doesn’t even look alien except for the grey skin and extra-long neck. What she looks like is a racist caricature. There were several responses on Twitter that described her as looking like an Alien Aunt Jemima or Space Mammy. So not only has Disney perpetuated a problem the Star Wars franchise has had for a while, they’ve pretty much doubled down: erasing the black actor and then putting a CGI mocap creature in her place that is a blatant and shameless mockery of black features.
I have to ask, where is the oversight? How many people saw this artwork and didn’t see the problematic elements that are obvious to me, to other black fans, and to more sensitive fans who aren’t black? How many people looked at it and never had the thought enter their head that it was problematic, to say the least?
That’s the generous interpretation; the likelier one is that people saw and either didn’t speak up for fear of their jobs, or worse still — people saw and just didn’t care enough to say anything.
Black fans and white were quick to give their strong opinions on the artwork, released by Indie Revolver.
This is an even bigger slap in the face to black fans after all the support and outpouring of love that John Boyega, “the black stormtrooper” got when his face first showed up on screen. How much we will see of his face and how much of him will be hidden behind the iconic white helmet remains to be seen.
It isn’t that sci-fi doesn’t have cute or beautiful aliens. The ones from Home and Chicken Little fall at the cutesy end of the scale. But Star Trek is known for their green space babes, and Star Wars has the Twi-lek and the Togruta. So it’s not as if there’s no precedent for making beautiful alien women.
The most infuriating part about this accepted culture of erasure and disrespect to black actors and moviegoers is that Hollywood knows what it’s doing and doesn’t care because there are still enough people willing to throw their money at franchises and overlook the problematic parts.
The question becomes for fans like me: is the fun of being able to see a much-beloved franchise’s eagerly-awaited continuation worth the gut-punch of knowing that no one at Disney cared enough to portray another black actor as a human? Worse still, it’s pretty much a given that even if we do vote with our wallets, it won’t make a big enough dent in the profits to make it worth Hollywood’s while to change — unless enough people of all ethnicities stand up against obvious racist casting and creative choices.
CORRECTION: Thanks to JX Gutierrez on Twitter for calling me out on mixing up Nikki with Kendra.