On the Long Tradition of the Imitative Performance of Blackness
Ayanna Thompson Considers the History of Minstrelsy, Racial Tropes, and the White Gaze
In Shakespeare’s lifetime, blackness was performed in two modes—exhibition (black people on display) and imitation (white men in racial prosthetics). Because in the exhibition mode all the power resided in the viewer (not the one exhibited), and because in the imitation mode all the power resided in the white, blacked-up performer, performances of blackness were a white performance property for actors and audiences.
In the 19th century, blackness and whiteness were performed by black actors for the first time in the United States and the United Kingdom, and their performances challenged the long-standing assumptions that (1) blackness was a white performance property and (2) only white actors could be virtuoso performers. These early 19th-century black performers were denigrated by white critics, white audiences, and their fellow white actors for “aping” white performance modes. The criticisms these black actors faced told them to stay in their lane, a lane which indicated they were only fit for imitation and “aping.”
In the 21st century, it is possible to see the legacy of these unequal horizons of expectations for black performers in three distinct performance modes: minstrelsy/imitation, exhibition/trauma, and anxiety/authenticity.
Tyler Perry began writing plays in the 1990s that were focused on the struggles of working-class black Americans. They often had a melodramatic structure with explicitly redemptive Christian endings. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Wesley Morris described Perry’s plays as “loud, long, hysterical shows in which a bunch of characters, not infrequently on a set resembling a sitcom diorama, love and leave one another, imparting morals the way a shot gets put. They aren’t quite farces, dramas or melodramas. They’re not exactly parables, musicals or church, either. They’re usually all of those things. Somebody’s mad, somebody’s cheating, somebody’s dying, somebody’s scheming. Here’s some dirt. Here’s some slapstick. Here’s a gospel song. Here’s the truth. Oh, Lord.”
Although not immediately successful, Perry’s plays grossed enough money touring on the urban theatre circuit between 1999 and 2005 that he was able to finance his first film, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) to the tune of $5M, and it went on to gross over $50M. The film, which was based on Perry’s 2001 play, is about:
Helen, a woman who has discovered that her “perfect” marriage is falling apart. After literally being thrown out of her house by her husband and his new mistress, Helen returns to her small hometown and turns to her Aunt Madea for a place to stay. In the film writer/director comedian Tyler Perry portrays Mabel “Madea” Simmons, a fictional character he created. Madea is an aggressive, grey-haired, Black woman behaving as a matriarch, who according to Perry, is based on his mother and aunt. She often argues with others on issues such as relationships, the Bible, and any family concern. She often threatens people by pulling a gun out of her purse, and she has a tendency for malapropisms as reflected in interpretation of the Bible stating, “Peace be still” as “my piece be steel” (referring to her gun).
Perry has donned his special cross-dressed fat suit to play Madea in 12 films to date (the latest in 2019). Many of the Madea films have grossed over $25M each, making Perry one of the most successful writer/director/producers in Hollywood. In fact, in 2011 Forbes listed him as the highest-paid man in entertainment for earning $130M the previous year.
To be clear, Perry’s Madea films are black written, black funded, black produced, black performed, and black directed. They are black artistic creations that were, at least initially when produced for the stage, pieces designed for black audiences. Nonetheless, the Madea films borrow heavily from the mammy stereotype that was birthed in the white-created and white-performed blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century.
Spike Lee has pointedly criticized Perry’s films for being “coonery and buffoonery,” or artistic creations that rely on minstrelsy’s stereotypical character types like the Tom, the Coon, the Mammy, and the Buck. Baruti N. Kopano and Jared A. Ball explain that “The mammy of American popular culture and film is a mythical creation who is the antithesis of the idealized notion of American womanhood.”
Mammy is obese, dark, aggressive, loud, and often irrational. They continue, “Despite many American men seeing large breasts and prominent buttocks as desirable physical traits for women, the mammy stereotype exaggerates these features so much so as to make them sexually undesirable, yet maternally nurturing.”
Perry is not unique in employing this performance mode. As bell hooks first explained, and as Iliana De Larkin elaborated, there is a long history of black men cross-dressing in fat suits to denigrate black femininity and maternity: Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Tyler Perry are just the first names that come to mind, but there are many, many more.
It is an established and acceptable mode for black actors to perform blackness, and it is founded on racist and sexist principles.
What I want to emphasize is that the imitative performance mode—one in which black actors borrow from white-created minstrel performance tropes—has a long tradition. It is an established and acceptable mode for black actors to perform blackness, and it is founded on racist and sexist principles.
While the comedic, cross-dressing, imitation mode for performing blackness is often rewarded financially, the exhibition/trauma mode for performing blackness is often rewarded by the film industry itself. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and other award-granting agencies most frequently reward films “about” black Americans when the films are actually about their great, white American saviors (The Blind Side, Amistad, and The Green Mile).
Black actors are also rewarded for performing black roles that clearly help white characters find and/or restore their mojo (Oscars went to Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost, Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, and Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby). And sometimes black actors are rewarded if black trauma is fully embodied in their performances (Oscars went to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Mo’Nique in Precious, and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave).
This last category is a clear descendent of the 400-year-old exhibition mode of performing blackness. And like Tyler Perry’s Madea films, I’d like to focus on a black-written and black-directed film, 12 Years a Slave (2013), because I am interested in the legacies and lasting impacts of minstrelsy on black creators in this chapter of the book. As I said before, it is not simply white children, performers, writers, directors, producers, and audiences who have absorbed the lessons of minstrelsy; it is also black children, performers, writers, directors, producers, and audiences too.
And in this exhibition/trauma mode of performing blackness, we are all collectively absorbing “repetitive images of abused Black Bodies. Scarred Black Bodies. Chained Black Bodies pressed together on ships, on wagons, on floors—longing to fulfill the desire for freedom and to shield themselves from certain pain. Excoriated Black Bodies… ”
The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave was based on the 1853 narrative of enslavement by Solomon Northrup. Northrup, who was a freeman living in New York, was kidnapped by traders when he was in Washington, DC, in 1841, and he was sold as an enslaved person to a series of enslavers in Louisiana for the next 12 years.
When he was released, he wrote his memoir to help with the efforts of the abolitionist movement. The black British director Steven McQueen wanted to direct a film about slavery in the United States, and he recruited the black American writer John Ridley to help him develop a script. It wasn’t until they read Twelve Years a Slave that they saw a way forward. Adapting Northrup’s memoir, they had the perspective they both wanted—a tale about the realities of the horrors of slavery written from an enslaved person’s perspective.
While McQueen was already a lauded director, his previous films had never addressed race, anti-black racism, or even American characters. The writer John Ridley, however, had spent his entire career tackling race, racism, and representations of race in the media in his creations. The challenges of representing the brutality of slavery and the challenges of representing a true black American subjectivity in the face of harshly sadistic circumstances were precisely what McQueen and Ridley hoped to address. In other words, they knew the potential pitfalls.
Part of their strategy was to rely on the veracity of the source text. Jasmine Nichole Cobb argues, “Producers associated with 12 Years make sure to rehearse proofs of the film’s validity as part of the promotion.”
They even went so far to hire Henry Louis Gates Jr. as an “historical consultant on the film and [he] provided the second major signifier of accurateness. Gates is renowned as an African American studies scholar, with publications on 19th-century African American literature…”
As Cobb argues, though, this adherence to validity also led McQueen to highlight the violence perpetuated on the black bodies of the enslaved:
On screen, the presence of violence is the key trope that signifies 12 Years as a legitimate portrayal of slavery. McQueen is emphatic about the brutality of the peculiar institution.
The film’s unwavering focus on the brutality has led many to question the overall impact of watching 12 Years. Valerie Smith notes about a long scene depicting Northrup hanging from a tree, “The unbearably long take requires viewers to watch the scene of Northrup’s torment and to be aware of our status as spectators. Ironically, we are also drawn into the scene by its very beauty… Through his use of these elements, Steve McQueen asks us to look long beyond the point at which we would prefer to avert our eyes and to be distracted by the next plot twist.”
The exhibition/trauma mode for performing blackness is often rewarded by the film industry itself.
Nonetheless, this type of scene setup and camera work are also typical of “mainstream cinematic tropes structured by the sadomasochistic gaze. McQueen’s film actively relies upon tropes of mastery and domination, pain and trauma… ”
This has led some to feel that McQueen’s film is trafficking in “torture porn.” For instance, Armond White, a black film critic, argued, “12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise.”
While I too found the violence in 12 Years nauseating, I would not place the film in the same generic line with the Saw franchise. Rather, I see it in line with Renaissance exhibitions of black bodies. It is hard for me to watch the film and think that it is intended for a black viewer, and that stems from my understanding of how the cinematic gaze works. Stephanie Li articulates it well when she argues:
Laura Mulvey contends that the cinematic apparatus is structured to replicate the point of view of the active male and implicitly white, heterosexual subject while the woman functions as the passive object of this gaze. Though McQueen structures the film through Northrup’s perspective, his positioning of the male protagonist as passive wreaks havoc with the gender politics of the gaze. McQueen may be understood as reifying the racial politics of the gaze by subjecting suffering male and female black bodies to the gaze of his camera. However, these images continually emphasize Northrup’s powerlessness, and as filtered through his perspective, they act less as a kind of fetishistic display than as a sign of his impotence.
In other words, even though the film aims to give voice to Northrup by positioning him as the center of the narrative through whom the audience experiences the events, his powerlessness in the face of unbridled sadistic acts by the white enslavers renders him an impotent figure. That status as the figure whose voice is powerless but whose body is nonetheless always available for the white gaze is exactly the performance mode—exhibition—that the Renaissance audience enjoyed.
What does this mean exactly? It means that black children, like my son, who watched television and movies in the 2000s have seen a strange range of performances of blackness. The lesson that black children are shown most often is that performance is a fraught ground. They are taught that authenticity is elusive. They see that there are limits on personal and even cultural expressions. These lessons do not open oneself to the possibility of claiming ownership, or even borrowing privileges, to performing another race. In fact, they do just the opposite. These examples discourage performing other identities whatsoever.
Adapted from Blackface (Object Lessons). Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Ayanna Thompson.