Kenneth Turan's recent review of "Bamboozled," Spike Lee's new film, takes as a given the offensiveness of African American caricatures ("Satire, Rage Add Up to Audacious 'Bamboozled,' " Oct. 6). Turan describes as "unsettling" the movie's "closing montage of film clips, showing well-loved stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney happily performing in blackface."
But a different standard applies to Asian Americans.
Funny how most people failed to notice that the "versatile" Rooney also put on taped eyelids and false buck teeth to play Mr. Yunioshi in the classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). He'd followed other proud practitioners of yellowface--white actors putting on makeup to look and/or sound Asian--such as Boris Karloff in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), Katharine Hepburn in "Dragon Seed" (1944) and Marlon Brando in "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956). Still to come were David Carradine in television's "Kung Fu" (1972-1975, 1992-98), Peter Sellers in both "Murder by Death" (1976) and "The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu" (1980), Peter Ustinov and Angie Dickinson in "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" (1980) and Jerry Lewis in "Hardly Working" (1981).
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 25, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Counterpunch photo--An incorrect photo from the "Mad TV" series on Fox was used to accompany the Counterpunch article in Monday's Calendar. It did not show actress Alex Borstein or the Asian character described in the article.
Alarmingly, in 1991, British actor Jonathan Pryce, who initially used prosthetics to play a Eurasian pimp in the London production of "Miss Saigon," was rewarded with the Tony for best actor in a musical.
Would Pryce's performance have been as well received if his character had been black? I think not.
As with blackface, these characters were one-dimensional fabrications, reflections of what white actors and creators believed a race of people to be like--in our case, perpetual foreigners. Still, these portrayals became the standards by which real-life Asian Americans are seen and treated.
Yellowface is no less hurtful and dehumanizing for us than blackface has been to African Americans.
Just last May, well-known actress and activist Susan Sarandon put on makeup to look like Ms. Swan, a recurring character on Fox's "Mad TV." One of the show's regular cast members, Alex Borstein, had been donning yellowface to play the gibberish-speaking nail-salon owner for years, while the Media Action Network for Asian Americans asked the producers to either get a real Asian American to play her or not use the character at all.
The Sarandon episode was the last straw. We are now targeting the show's sponsors, asking them to pull their ads.
These days, even cartoon caricatures of black people are automatically recognized as taboo. Note how Spike Lee's movie ad for "Bamboozled"--with an exaggerated drawing of a smiling, watermelon-eating black child in braids--was rejected by the New York Times for being too offensive, even though Lee was obviously using satire to make a point.
By contrast, consider "Mr. Wong," an animated Internet series that Icebox.com has transmitted since June: The title character, a houseboy to a rich white woman, is drawn with stereotypical buck teeth and sickly yellow skin. He speaks with an exaggerated foreign accent (even though he's been living in the United States for at least 60 years), and is usually the butt of the jokes. The LA Weekly recently included an advertising insert for it in the guise of a takeout menu. The editors later apologized. But it's clear there's a double standard in sensitivity between racially caricatured black and Asian figures.
Artisan Entertainment ("Blair Witch Project") was even in talks to acquire the "Mr. Wong" series as a home-video release until the Asian American community bombarded President Bill Block with phone calls and e-mails warning him not to even think about it. Last month, he changed his mind. The unrepentant Icebox, however, is trying to interest other companies in turning "Mr. Wong" into a motion picture.
Thankfully, blackface disappeared from our television and movie screens some 50 years ago. Because of time and distance, "Bamboozled" helps us recognize just how cruel and dehumanizing that practice was.
Sadly, a movie satirizing yellowface cannot be made today because, for Asian Americans, yellowface--and racial stereotyping in general--is still a sobering reality.
Maybe in 50 years?