Banal, ultimately inconsequential contretemps are the mark of a vigorous presidential election-the "silly season," as Barack Obama put it in a recent debate. And one of the silliest furors to emerge from the rancorous Democratic primary contest is the selection of Fred Armisen, who is of white and Asian heritage, to play Obama on "Saturday Night Live." It's especially silly because it is an issue that seems to have been totally created by the media-a charge leveled often, but this time it has merit. The tornado in a teacup was started by two pieces (one in the Chicago Tribune and one in the Guardian) that questioned the judgment of choosing Armisen to play Obama. Apart from raised eyebrows from those critics, there hasn't been much of a to-do about the issue.
However, Armisen's Obama does provide us an opportunity to revisit the thorny subject of whether or not it's OK for actors to darken their skin in order to play minority characters. The explanation provided by the producers of "Saturday Night Live" is perfectly reasonable: they held several auditions for actors, and none of them worked. The cast's sole African-American, Kenan Thompson, would have been required to lose a considerable amount of weight for the role and still would neither look nor sound anything like the Illinois senator. Armisen had Obama's rhythms down and was easiest to slot into the role. Fair enough. Besides, Armisen has played Prince, and his white castmate Darrell Hammond has played Jesse Jackson. It wasn't nearly as easy for Angelina Jolie to explain why she darkened her skin to play Mariane Pearl in last year's film "A Mighty Heart." There was more of an uproar over that choice, from actual people, not media pundits, and Mariane Pearl is far less famous than Obama is. So what's the difference? Why are some "blackface" performances pounced on while others skate by?
There are two issues at play when people have a negative gut response to a white actor donning makeup to play a minority. The first has to do with the history of minstrelsy, which used white actors to show blacks as lazy, buffoonish caricatures. The other has to do with the dearth of substantive roles for actors of color. The former isn't a valid criticism; the latter is, but when people who are not out-of-work black actors react, it's based on the long shadow of minstrelsy, not indignation over perceived slights towards the black contingent of a glamour profession.
If watching Armisen play Obama makes people uncomfortable, it's because watching a white actor with his skin darkened calls to mind a painful chapter in America's history. But minstrelsy, at least white minstrelsy, doesn't exist anymore. White actors are darkened only to play characters that embody the opposite characteristics of the stereotypes presented in minstrel shows, like a Barack Obama, like a Mariane Pearl. White actors would never play characters who embody negative stereotypes, because Hollywood, that bastion of liberalism, knows better than to snatch off that bandage. (If Frank Caliendo darkens his skin to play Kwame Kilpatrick, even I'll be upset.)
But a valid question is, why can't black actors play positive black characters? A mockery of Barack Obama doesn't really count. But Mariane Pearl does. And this doesn't only apply to real-life characters. It's still a bit of a sticking point that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won their historic Academy Awards for playing morally questionable characters. The 2000 film "Pay It Forward" was adapted from a Catherine Ryan Hyde novel in which the lead male character was black. But the film adaptation was rewritten so that Kevin Spacey could play the part. (In the movie Spacey's character has severe scars due to childhood abuse, whereas in the novel the character suffered from severe keloids.) There are far fewer examples of parts being rewritten so that blacks could be cast in the roles.
Making a fuss over the appropriateness of Fred Armisen playing Barack Obama is indeed silly. What's not silly is that there are so few opportunities for black actors to play Oscar-bait dramatic roles. It's not the presence of white actors in makeup that should make us uncomfortable; it's the absence of black actors that should make us squirm in our seats.