Billy in Blackface: ‘Racist’ Oscar Routine Isn’t a Big Hit

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What’s an award show without a little racial controversy? We can thank Billy Crystal for bringing us our latest dose as the host of last night’s 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. The New York comedian is coming under fire for not only failing to be funny—which few hosts ever are—but for masking racism as comic relief.

There were two instances in particular that made audiences have a side-eye, what he say, get this dude out of here moment. The first is what is being referred to as “the blackface skit.” Essentially what was going on was Billy was continuing his tradition of spoofing the nominated films and in this instance he was putting a spin on Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris by appearing as Sammy Davis, Jr. in the movie. There are a few things to note about that: One, Billy Crystal used to do an impression of Sammy routinely on Saturday Night Live during the 80s; two, Midnight in Paris is a magical travel-themed film so Billy was likely trying to relive his SNL glory days and explain some of his relevance for hosting the Oscar’s in the first place by dredging up that character; and three, isn’t there a difference between blackface and an impersonation?

I personally see blackface as a white person painting his face brown and adopting certain mannerisms for the sake of appearing as any random black person on this planet and sparking controversy, i.e. stereotyping. A white man impersonating a well-known entertainment figure who happens to be black by means of darkening his skin with makeup just has a different feel to me. Sure, Billy could have asked a black character to portray Sammy Davis Jr. but the point was for him to be inserted into the films, and again, this was a character he assumed many times throughout his comedic past. Still, most viewers felt his use of “blackface” was inappropriate, outdated, and racist.

During the show, Pop culture blogger Jorge Rivas, tweeted: “And the Oscar for Most Racist Host goes to Billy Crystal’s blackface performance.”

Comedian Paul Scheer also tweeted after the announcement of the Best Supporting Actress recipient: “Octavia Spencer’s win shows just how far we’ve come since Billy Crystal performed in Blackface.”

“The Help” became a part of Billy’s controversy in more ways than one last night. If there was any chance the Midnight in Paris skit was going to be swept under the rug, his joke about black women in Hollywood kept it fresh in people’s minds. After Octavia Spencer’s win, he returned from commercial break with a joke many found to be not so funny. He said:

“I loved that movie [The Help]…when I saw it, I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw. Which from Beverly Hills is about a 45 minute drive.”

Maybe I’m naive but I actually saw that joke as more of a commentary on the lack of black women in Hollywood—you know the very issue we’re screaming and kicking about every day. And apparently the problem we don’t have an issue with white people bringing up unless they don’t take it seriously enough.

Lots of viewers took issue with the crack and Kim Kane, a writer for The Global Grind said she was floored by the crass joke. She detailed her reaction in an article today, writing:

“It bothers me that none of the writers stopped to think about the feelings of the other black actors and actresses in the room. It bothers me that some in the audience were so de-sensitized that they laughed out loud. It bothers me that no one considered the sensitivity of the situation – Octavia Spencer had just won an Academy Award for playing a maid, a role she’s defended to those who feel blacks are rewarded with Oscar only when their character is subservient / enforces a stereotype onscreen. It bothers me that no one will be accountable for writing such insensitive copy. It bothers me to think about struggling black actors and actresses who fall in love with an industry that lets them down. It bothers me that I’m writing this blog in 2012…that society is still recovering from the damage done by bigots who advocated racial segregation. It bothers me that the Academy would go so far as to emphasize the sentiment that black women are invisible in Hollywood, as far as they’re concerned.”

I will say there was a part of the joke that was off to me; it was the idea that “The Help” was a film that made Billy Crystal love black women. That subtle jab makes me see Kim’s point entirely. The reason nominations for “The Help” stirred so much controversy is because we keep asserting that Hollywood is most comfortable seeing black women in servant roles—as evidenced by the awarding of those performances when a black actress takes on such a part. No one—black or white—could have missed that memo with all of the discussions that have taken place about this film. So, in that sense, it was insensitive of the writers and Billy Crystal to essentially confirm suspicions that racial prejudices are still the driving force behind the Academy’s old boy network of voters. But what do we expect from a comedian who gets paid to step on toes?

Overall, I think people are being a little too sensitive about Billy Crystal’s routine last night and we’re starting to find anything that touches on race to be racist. Pretty soon that double standard of black people being able to crack jokes about white people, but white people not being allowed to say anything about black folks is going to come back and bite us—hard.

What did you think about Billy’s impersonation and his joke about black women in Hollywood? Racist, insensitive, or are people overreacting?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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