There was a bit of a shocker included in the Oscar nominations this year -- Robert Downey Jr. receiving a nod for his part in Tropic Thunder. It's a double whammy -- one of those rare nominations in the comedy category (a farce no less!), and a role that's almost 100% blackface. Unsurprisingly, the role created unrest, as well as a lot of discussion revolving around Hollywood's treatment of race on and off the screen.
Like it or not, race jumping is pretty much intrinsically linked to Hollywood -- all the way back to the first silent films. Over the years, it's morphed from minstrels to mainstream icons, critical darlings, and races of all sorts. Katharine Hepburn went Chinese for Dragon Seed. Charlton Heston went a rather ridiculous brownface for Touch of Evil. These days, that's not quite so kosher, but instances do pop up, both on the big screen (keep reading) and small screen (Saturday Night Live, for one).
But to try and delve into all race portrayals for a list of seven is just silly, so I'm focusing on blackface. And since the Academy Awards are almost upon us, this is blackface at the Oscars (save for one relevant film in recent history that should be mentioned, but didn't get Academy love). Read on, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.
Note: Blackface is used in the broader sense, and not just to define minstrel performances.
In chronological order...
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Al Jolson stars in this 1927 film as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a Jewish cantor who leaves his parents and faith to become a famous jazz singer. He tours, he makes a name for himself, falls in love, and then finds himself on Broadway, in blackface, singing "My Mammy." For Jolson, this was part of a career of blackface numbers, which has resulted in a Hollywood name that is both cherished and chided. As for the film, it got an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, and was disqualified for Best Picture. It wasn't the first to integrate sound (John Barrymore's Don Juan holds that honor for a synched score and sound effects*), but it was the first feature-length film that included spoken dialog as part of the plot, and the Academy thought this gave it an unfair advantage. To make up for such a ridiculous claim (advancement might equal advantage, but it's an earned advantage!), the film was given an Honorary Award.
*But also not the first sound film. Read more here.
Swing Time (1936)
These days, blackface is very far from the norm, and many like to think that it was a mistake made by people easily forgotten, and not some of Hollywood's most iconic names. There's Swing Time, a film about a man trying to raise money to marry his fiance, and ends up falling for his beautiful dance partner. The man in question is Fred Astaire, who dons blackface to perform "Bojangles of Harlem" -- a tribute to Bill Robinson. The film won an Oscar for Original Song ("The Way You Look Tonight") and lost Best Dance Direction (for the Bojangles number) to The Great Ziegfield.
Babes in Arms (1939)
The story of two artists trying to make a life for themselves in that business we call show, stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland both wore blackface for a minstrel musical number. (That doesn't seem to be online, but here is another blackface Garland performance that's quite eerie.) This is the first direct performance of black face to get an Oscar nomination for Mickey Rooney, plus another nod for Best Score.
Holiday Inn (1942)
From here we move to the classic Irving Berlin -- the film with a blackface number that was taken out of many television screenings. (You can read an great recollection of watching the edited version on PBS here.) In the same film that has Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," there's "Abraham", which has Bing and Marjorie Reynolds singing in blackface and celebrating Abe Lincoln freeing the slaves. While television broadcasts may have cut the scene, the film still received two nods for Best Score and Writing, plus a win for "White Christmas."
Honorable Mentions: Yankee Doodle Dandy, Show Boat
And then things got much less minstrel-linked. Rather than cast a black man to star in William Shakespeare's Othello, they cast the great Laurence Olivier, lover of Shakespeare, and considered the one who could speak Will's classic lines like he was "actually thinking them." This marks the switch from minstrel to star power as far as the Oscars go. Just like today, anyone would argue that his involvement was for his talents, even if he had change his race to do it. While the film won no Oscars, Olivier got a Best Actor nod for his performance, and there were further nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress.
Note: Orson Welles also donned blackface for Othello with his adaptation: The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice.
A Mighty Heart (2007)
And this is where I cheat. The film received no Oscar nominations, but Angelina Jolie did earn a nomination for Best Actress in a dramatic role at the Golden Globes for her stint as Mariane Pearl. What was quite surprising about this project is that in this time, with such tensions surrounding blackface performances, there was relatively little backlash -- not as many comments on the number of talented actresses who wouldn't have had to change their race to take the role, who are award-winners, and those who resemble the real woman. By many, it was deemed okay for the art.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Which brings me, finally, to Tropic Thunder, and the performance that earned Robert Downey Jr. his second Oscar nomination. This is the one performance I appreciate. Why? It's not blackface humor, but exactly the opposite -- mocking the legitimacy that states that it's okay to change your race as a serious actor, for your craft. We enjoy Kirk Lazarus because of how RDJ portrays him, but he is a man revelling in stereotypes, oblivious to the problems with his plan. Will he win this Oscar? Nah. If he did, it would be the shocker of the century, beating out the late Heath Ledger and Josh Brolin (not to mention Philip Seymour Hoffman and Michael Shannon).