Recently, it came to the public’s attention that so, so many politicians turned out to have worn blackface in the ’80s that the question now becomes which politician didn’t. On top of this, along comes Megyn “Santa is white” Kelly with her controversial—i.e., dumb and insensitive—comments about how blackface was not a big deal during that period, which supposedly contributed to her daytime talk show being cancelled. All of this got me wondering, was blackface not a big deal in the ’80s? Was it frowned upon and rightfully shamed the way it is now, or were performers pulling out the black make up and afro wig at every opportunity the way they did during the first half of the 20th Century?
The answer, as with many things in life, lies somewhere in between. The use of makeup for white actors to appear a different race was not as pervasive as it was during the “golden age of Hollywood.” Check out Bamboozled’s end montage for a sobering dose of that reality. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t present. Of course just because the practice is used, doesn’t automatically make it offensive. To back that up, I have two magical words for you: Tropic Thunder. So in an effort to find nuance, let’s explore some of the uses of blackface, brownface and yellowface in ’80s movies (Spoiler: It’s mostly really, really bad.)
The Jazz Singer (1980)
Actor: Neil Diamond
Most remakes will contain scenes or at least references to memorable moments from the original. In the case of this laughably miscalculated attempt at turning Neil Diamond into a movie star, the studio executives should have ignored one of the glaring elements that people remember from the 1927 original: Al Jolson in blackface. Of course the first Jazz Singer was primarily known for being the first major feature release with sound, but it’s hard to make that a big deal in 1980. So in the coked-up minds of the executives, the solution to provide a link between the two films was to blacken Neil Diamond up. In order to get with the times, they come up with the old, “I can’t be racist, I have black friends” defense, and plant a bunch of black musicians on the scene. The set-up is that Diamond’s struggling singer has to put on blackface because the club they’re playing at is looking for an all-black band. This effort to put a spin on the original actually makes things worse, since it makes it look like the blackface was the black characters’ idea, removing all responsibility from the white protagonist.
The Fiendish Plot of Fu Munchu (1980)
Actor: Peter Sellers
All I really need to make my case here is to share this clip. Reader be warned: This snippet is so unbelievably racist, that you might want to switch to Incognito Mode before clicking on the link. It would have been poetically apt to call Peter Sellers’ sublime turn in Being There his last performance before his death, if fate’s fiendish sense of humor didn’t intervene in the form of this bizarre heist comedy. Sellers has dual parts here, one of which is the title role, a 168-year-old supposedly charming and charismatic supervillain who leaves no appalling Asian stereotype unturned. The character, originated from a series of popular pulp novels, saw many white actors, from Boris Karloff to Christopher Lee, put on yellowface in film adaptations over the decades. Sellers’ equally terrible rendition has the distinction of being the latest, and hopefully the last.
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Actor: Linda Hunt
This is by far the least offensive entry on the list. In director Peter Weir’s solid political thriller/exotic love story, white actress Linda Hunt plays a Chinese-Australian male diplomat who guides Mel Gibson’s reporter through Indonesia’s political turmoil. The character is three-dimensional, and is handled with dignity and individuality, without any discernible stereotypes. So much so that Hunt won that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The relationship between Hunt and Gibson establish the moral anchor of the story. Weir is also on record that he looked extensively for an Asian actor to play the part the way he wanted, but had to settle for Hunt. All of that being said, such a casting decision would likely result in widespread condemnation today, and for good reason. It just looks better by default, compared to all the other examples on this list.
Just because it’s one of the most iconic performances in film history doesn’t change the fact that Italian actor Al Pacino has put on brownface and adopted the most cartoonish possible Cuban accent to portray ye-yo enthusiast/Miami drug kingpin Tony Montana. Brian De Palma’s physical manifestation of ’80s excess is so giddily over the top, and Pacino’s no-fucks-given masterclass in scene chewing is so singular, that it’s easy for the audience to cognitively disassociate Scarface’s protagonist from anything resembling a real person. Yet the character’s still supposed to be Cuban, and is still a live-action cartoon. Someday even the biggest hard-core fan might have to come to terms with this. From there, maybe we can move on to De Palma and Pacino doing pretty much the same thing with Carlito’s Way in the ’90s.
Trading Places (1983)
Yet another one of those, “There’s a black character in the scene, so it’s cool” applications of blackface. John Landis’ classic takedown of Reagan-era capitalism hidden underneath one of the funniest movies of the decade bafflingly sees Dan Aykroyd’s yuppie shithead putting on black makeup and dreads to come across as a Jamaican so stereotypical, that Red Stripe commercials would ask him to tone it down. Within the context of the scene, the need for the character to disguise himself is essential for the two heroes to take revenge on the rich old farts who screwed them over. But why did it have to be blackface? A fake mustache and glasses could have worked just as well, and we wouldn’t have to live with such a literal stain on an otherwise terrific satire.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Actor: Joel Grey
This self-aware action/comedy box-office bomb was based on a series of pulp novels, and the adaptation certainly fits that tone. It’s about the titular cop (Fred Ward) whose death is faked so he can become a top-secret assassin for the government. Since this is an ’80s action flick, of course the cop has to be trained by a wisecracking but also stoic Asian old man before he can go kick some ass. In the case of Remo Williams, this role is filled by Joel Grey as Chiun, a yellowface performance so offensive, that extra emphasis is put on how he mispronounces Ls and Rs. The character’s so effortlessly badass, that he’s supposed to be sort of a cartoon. He can dodge bullets, balance himself on his thumb and make a woman reach orgasm by tapping her wrist. So the tacit defense by the filmmakers seems to be to not take the part seriously enough to apply any real cultural emphasis. Yet I defy anyone to watch the movie with Asian friends in the room and not sweat bullets. Interesting side note: Grey was also up for Linda Hunt’s part in The Year of Living Dangerously.
Actor: Jenette Goldstein
As someone who thinks of Aliens as not only the gold standard of how to make a sequel, but also the quintessential action film of its decade, this one personally hurts the most. The character of Private Vasquez is so iconic that to this day if you randomly say in a crowd, “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”, chances are someone will step up and respond, “No, have you?” But it’s also a sad fact that Jenette Goldstein isn’t Hispanic, and had to be made up to look brown. For comparison, look at her natural skin color as an Irish mother in Titanic (at 37 second mark). Goldstein’s accent in Aliens is obvious, but it’s not too glaring. As good as she is in the part, she wasn’t an irreplaceable star at the time, so it’s hard to gauge why an actual Hispanic actress wasn’t cast.
Soul Man (1986)
Actor: C. Thomas Howell
This is the first title that would probably pop in everyone’s mind upon referencing blackface in the ’80s. The decade had its share of gender-swapping comedies about protagonists having to disguise themselves as the opposite gender in order to get a scholarship, win at tennis, become a TV star, etc… Soul Man takes that idea and pumps a whole lot of head-slapping racial insensitivity. It’s about a preppy white shithead (C. Thomas Howell) who takes tanning pills to pass himself off as black so he can use an African-American scholarship to get into Harvard. Writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner try to legitimize this insanely misguided premise by giving the character an arc wherein he slowly understands the discrimination faced by African Americans on a daily basis. But the film’s prime directive is to work as a goofy comedy, so the fact that it’s full of gaudy racial jokes—he looks black but still has a small dick, hardy har har—erases any of that supposed goodwill. The “white savior” ending is also indefensible.
Short Circuit 2 (1988)
Actor: Fisher Stevens
Fisher Stevens’ role as the blatantly stereotypical Indian tech nerd Ben Jabituya in both Short Circuit flicks presents a fairly positive brown character in a decade full of movies that vilify people with that skin color. In fact, Ben is not only the protagonist in the sequel; his ethnicity isn’t emphasized in the story. Hell, he even gets the girl at the end. But alas, Stevens’ browned skin, exaggerated accent and head movements make these films downright unwatchable nowadays. If the part seems like a harmless tribute on the surface, I invite those with a Netflix subscription to watch Master of None’s Season 1 episode “Indians on TV,” to experience how such a fraudulent representation can harm brown children who grow up with it. On the bright side, this conversation about Ben resulted in Stevens coming to terms with how problematic his performance was.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.