So, we’ve finally caught up with Chris Lilley. But the decade in between has offered many examples of blackface. What’s your problem, Australia?
Okay. I’m going to say two trigger words and, no matter who you are, you are likely to have a visceral reaction of either condemnation or defence:
Yes, that strange Australian cultural icon who somehow got away with performing a racist song, while dressed racistly, and, for good measure, putting on a racist accent at the 2006 Logies, may finally be watching his career die. About goddamn time, I say.
Lilley has managed to make a career out of race-facing. I say that because I don’t know if it’s called ‘blackface’ when you dress up as a Chinese-Australian as well. Let me just say that again: a white man – in the 2000s, in Australia – made a career for himself playing characters that were, for the most part, a) children and b) people of colour.
I have no idea how he got away with it for so long. As a filthy immigrant myself (hailing for the tumultuous lands of French Canada) Australian comedy was very odd to me when I moved here. First and foremost, it was very British – lots of costumes and props – but there was the added casual racism element. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it, coming from North America where blackface is very much not okay, so it seemed very odd that a grown man was playing a Tongan teenager.
Chris Lilley was nothing more than a guy who was constantly given a platform because we thought his accents were funny. If he really cared about the characters – or, more importantly, the people from the group he was ‘representing’ – then he would have hired appropriate actors for them.
I don’t need a middle-aged white man “embodying” the role of a Tongan teen, or a Chinese-Australian student. The Chris Lilley world – where every human being seems to have the face of Chris Lilley – is terrifying to me, and I don’t want to live in it.
Reverse-blackface isn’t a thing. There’s no historically significant use of it to keep an entire group of people down. True, the intention behind it can be potentially offensive, or even bigoted in its own right, but the equation between it and blackface is simply unbalanced.
There are other recent examples of a white man donning blackface for lols, such as Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder. Well, let me talk to you about a thing called ‘intention’. In the film, RDJ plays an Australian, playing an American, playing a black man. One of the other characters is an actual black person who is constantly making fun of, or being annoyed at, RDJ’s character.
Because RDJ’s character represents the inherent racism of Hollywood, vis-à-vis getting a white actor to play a black character it’s a satire of racism, not a satire of race.
Jamie Foxx recently discussed this, and a recent project in which he, a black man, dresses up as a “white, racist cop” and RDJ plays a “Mexican guy”.
Now, I don’t know how this film will turn out. But, let me pre-empt some bullshit by saying black people dressing up as white people for movies isn’t ‘reverse-blackface’. That isn’t a thing. There’s no historically significant use of it to keep an entire group of people down. True, the intention behind it can be potentially offensive, or even bigoted in its own right, but the equation between it and blackface is simply unbalanced.
When Chris Lilley dons Jonah’s make-up, what is he saying other than, “I can do a funny accent, and can, therefore, play a black kid”? Nothing. Just like those schmucks who dressed up like Aboriginal people for a party, or that Australian girl’s “African-themed” 21st birthday party, or when that mum put her kid in blackface to dress him up as his favourite footy player. It doesn’t say anything other than “other races are a costume to me”.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are questioning whether or not to do it, just say no. Especially if the part of your brain leaning towards a “yes” is saying, “this will get a few laughs from the boys”. It won’t. You’re just a dickhead. And especially when those laughs are coming from a place of “what’s the worst stereotype I can come up with” or “look, I’m ironically doing something intentionally racist to be edgy, but I’m not a racist, I promise, look at me, I have a single black friend who is definitely cool with me doing this”.
Yeah, nah, Australia.