Is whiteface funnier than blackface? It’s certainly got the historical advantage. The new Wayans brothers movie White Chicks may be merely the latest schlock comedy to satirize racial difference, but it at least has the allure of strangeness: The movie’s black comic stars are transformed with putty-colored latex masks, blonde extensions, and Clorox-blue contact lenses into the “Wilson sisters,” a metamorphosis that leaves them looking not much different from the poor victims on The Swan.
But if the sight of hunky African-American men cavorting as skanky white heiresses does not guarantee comic gold, it has a queasy, unsettling impact all its own—a satirical kick with a long lineage. Because no black comedian can perform in whiteface without implicitly referencing the genre’s roots: blackface comedy, which began when whites still legally owned (and sired) slaves. In 1843, the Virginia Minstrels, a group of white men, darkened their faces with burnt cork, put on raggedy clothes, and plucked banjos at New York’s Bowery Amphitheatre, kicking off a craze that didn’t fizzle out until the twenties. It was the ugliest possible form of popular entertainment: Imagine if the soldiers at Abu Ghraib had videotaped themselves in tattered dishdashas, mocking the stupidity of the people they’d degraded—and become as beloved as any American Idol.
African-Americans didn’t get much in terms of comic payback until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. But although racist minstrelsy was performed only by white people, it also included a form of whiteface: Many antebellum shows featured a character called the “interlocutor,” an upper-class foil often played by a white man in white makeup. (After the Civil War, when black people entered minstrelsy, this function was fulfilled by a light-skinned black man without makeup.)
“These performances can be cheap shots, but they have a weird potency: It’s imitation as revenge.”
Then, in 1965, everything changed. That’s when Douglas Turner Ward, a playwright who later co-founded the Negro Ensemble Company, first produced Day of Absence, a one-act play he called a “reverse minstrel” show. Ward had black actors in whiteface portray the bigoted citizens of a nameless southern town on a day when all the black people inexplicably disappear. “The South has always been glued together by the uninterrupted presence of its darkies,” declares the mayor. “No telling how unstuck we might git if things keep on like they have.” Instead of alienating audiences, Day of Absence won Obie and Drama Desk awards and inspired activists nationwide. The Million Man March, in 1995, was sometimes referred to as the Million Man March/Day of Absence.
Ward’s satire set the tone for much of the reverse minstrelsy that followed, including Melvin Van Peebles’s 1970 film Watermelon Man, a psychedelic romp in which Godfrey Cambridge plays a white insurance salesman who wakes up to discover that he has become a black man; Whoopi Goldberg’s 1996 The Associate, in which she impersonates a fictional white-male boss in order to get ahead; and Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2001 play Topdog/Underdog, in which an African-American character has a job impersonating Abe Lincoln in whiteface.
Perhaps the best-known example of contemporary comic whiteface came when Eddie Murphy suited up as an Anglo on Saturday Night Live in the early eighties. Disguised as a nasal-voiced white businessman with a brush mustache, Murphy goes undercover and “discovers” a secret life of privilege. Newspapers are free; on a city bus, when the only black man aboard disembarks, the white patrons sigh with relief, take off their coats to reveal party clothes, and begin swilling champagne. When Murphy visits a bank, the loan officer spreads out fistfuls of dollars, telling him, “Pay us back anytime you like. Or don’t!” The skit concludes with Murphy back in the dressing room, warning viewers that this is only the first step: “I’ve got a lot of friends, and we’ve got a lot of makeup.”
No one would ever take the Wayans brothers for Douglas Turner Ward, or even early Eddie Murphy. Their productions are less political than frat-boy-contemptuous. And their implicit message—blonde white heiresses are ditzy sluts—is unlikely to prove controversial. But if these performances can be cheap (and misogynist) shots, they also have an odd potency: imitation as revenge. Audiences get the thrill of seeing whiteness portrayed as nothing more than a performance, and the titillating undercurrent of that idea: With a little makeup, anyone can be anything. And weirdly, white people seem to love it. One can only hope the wheel won’t spin again, inspiring the Farrelly brothers to cast themselves as Venus and Serena Williams.