There's a video making the internet rounds of some sort of asian game show where a Japanese dude puts on blackface and does a pretty decent impression of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World". This video has already been blogged about extensively, so many of you have probably already seen it (in case you haven't, go watch it on Youtube here and then come back).
If you're too lazy to go watch the youtube video, here's a still from it so we can at least be on the same page:
As those of you who are longtime YYII patrons know, I am an amateur chronicler of contemporary blackface usage. In my own humble opinion, when a non-black person wears blackface, it's pretty much always racist. Everyone in America generally agreed with this position until last year when Paramount decided to spend $150 million making an intensely mediocre comedy in which one of its principal actors was a white person who spends almost the entire movie in blackface; acting and talking like a black person. When shooting on Tropic Thunder finished, Paramount realized that this movie was kind of funny, but nowhere near $150 million funny, so they had to figure out some way to convince everyone that Robert Downey Jr.'s performance was not only not racist, but an example of pure acting brilliance. I'm not sure how they did this, but it's very similar to how Republicans convinced everyone in America that John Kerry was an un-American wimp and George W. Bush was the paragon of patriotism with all of that swift boat nonsense during the 2004 election even though John Kerry literally fought in Vietnam and George W. Bush was a draft dodger during that very same war. Again, I can't tell you how these tricks are accomplished, but I suspect it involves Satan, The Secret, a LOT of money, or some combination of the three.
But I digress. Because of the overwhelming validation and adoration* that Robert Downey Jr. has received for his glorified minstrel act**, it is now kind of tough to tell when wearing blackface is racist. Accordingly, as a service to you my dear reader, I try to monitor the commentary associated with each highly publicized usage of blackface in order to determine when it is racist to wear blackface and when it is just plain hilarious to wear blackface.
Japanese Louis Armstrong is walking a very fine line here. If he were an American doing this, it would unquestionably be racist, but since he's Japanese and this is a Japanese television show that was never meant to actually be shown on American TV, I think that in itself makes it a little less racist. Plus, when I saw it, I kind of thought it was just as racist toward Japanese people as it is to black people. I'm half laughing because of the blackface and half laughing because he can't pronoune l's**** ("And I say to myself, what a wonderful word!"). On the other hand, when they showed this clip on The Soup, Joel McHale said that it was racist and I generally trust Joel McHale's judgement on all matters.
I'm going to go ahead and say that by America's new post-Obama, post-racial standards on what is and isn't racist, Japanese Louis Armstrong is more racist than Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, but less racist than the blackface crossdressing mayor.
* * *
*He just got nominated for an Oscar for this movie. Unbelievable. Just totally f***ing unbelievable. If he wins, the Oscars are over. That's it. Let's just cancel the whole thing and forget that they ever existed just like we did with the Grammys when U2 won Album of the Year for 2005's unrelenting crapfest, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb over Kanye West's masterful Late Registration. Here are some actual lyrics from one of the songs on that U2 album: "Hello, hello! (hola!) / I'm at a place called called vertigo! (donde esta?!?) / It's everything I wish I didn't know / Except you give me something I can feel! / Feel! / Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!" I am about to be incredibly generous here and say that U2 stopped making good music after 1997. Most people will say that 1991's Achtung Baby was their last good album, but I liked Pop, so I'm going to say that they've only been musically irrelevant for the past twelve years, instead of the past eighteen (not that the Grammys care anything about the quality of your music). Also, I like Bono. He can be a little insufferable at times, but he's a good guy.
**I just want to clarify why I think Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in Tropic Thunder is racist. I understand that he's playing a meta-character in the movie and that he's lampooning self-serious method actors. I get that. And some of the laughs in the movie come from this meta-satire. But most of them don't. Many of the laughs in the movie come from watching Robert Downey Jr. talk and act like a black person and that's racist. When you're laughing at a white actor getting selected to play a black role and then getting skin pigmentation surgery to prepare for the role, you are laughing at a well-crafted send-up of Hollywood ridiculousness. When you are laughing at Robert Downey Jr. delivering lines like "Yo asshole! This motha' fucka's dead. Ain't no Criss Angel Mindfreak, David Blane trapdoor horseshit jumpin' off here!" in his best black guy inflection while wearing blackface, you are laughing at a racist minstrel act. Let's call a spade a spade here.***
***Just so you know, the expression "let's call a spade a spade" was intentionally included here to highlight the fact that that expression is not racist at all. Please see this well-referenced blog entry for proof.
****Hey, I'm not saying that I'm not racist here. I think Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in Tropic Thunder is pretty damn funny. Not Oscar funny, but pretty solid. It's like the Avenue Q song, "Everybody is a Little Racist." I'm not saying you're wrong for laughing at Kirk Lazarus, I just want you to be upfront about why you're laughing.