Published: Feb. 1, 2005 By

[1] In the preface to her analysis Racechanges, feminist scholar Susan Gubar explains her own induction to contemporary race theory via gender theory and questions the resistance to scholarly work on racechange: “Was the subject of transracial crossing more taboo than that of transvestism or transsexuality?  Not only has the blatant racism of minstrelsy (quite reasonably) made white impersonations of blacks seem shameful, it has also (less sensibly) spilled over to discourage scholarship about its ongoing impact on American culture” (xvii).  Although Racechanges neglects to resolve her query fully, Gubar’s initial connection between race and gender theory proves groundbreaking.  Despite a certain academic resistance to legitimize blackface as a topic of scholarly inquiry, the theatricality of minstrelsy suggests similarities with gendered performances like drag, which Judith Butler has established as a rich subject for critical exploration.  If drag can be read as a destabilizing force that liberates gender from essentialized binary logic, modern-day minstrelsy could seemingly work in much the same manner.  Yet, despite the ongoing dialogue among gender and race theorists, contemporary criticism has yet to unravel the complex web that binds gender and race or to discuss adequately the relationships of gender and race to power through mediums like class, fame, and fashion.  Beginning with films like Paris Is Burning (1990), Bamboozled(2000) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) and then moving to the Halloween incidents over the past several years at Southern universities in which numerous individuals donned blackface, this essay explores the ways in which minstrelsy works as a parody like contemporary drag to both subvert and affirm essentialized notions of race.  Ultimately, neither drag nor minstrelsy proves to be entirely subversive or repressive, but a query into this intersection of race and gender performance reveals covert systems of desire and control, pleasure and power that begin to explain the limited successes and failures of both types of parody.

[2] Social demonstrations of blackface appear to coincide with periods of increased racial ambiguity.  Since the call in the mid-1980s from leading African American theorists to deconstruct race and move beyond essentialized notions of identity, much has changed in the larger cultural understanding of racial identity.  The United States Census Bureau included the category “multiracial” for the first time on its 2000 census.  Encouraged by Toni Morrison’s 1992 Playing in the Dark, whiteness theory swept academic circles through courses, conferences, and several readers concerning critical white studies. Time magazine dedicated a special issue in 1993 to the spreading American multiculturalism, using computer-generated images to blend the facial characteristics of individuals of various ethnicities into “the new face of America.”  PGA champion Tiger Woods publicly embraced his African and Thai heritages, refusing to label himself as black (Norment 112).  Moreover, countercultural publications like Noel Ignatiev’s Race Traitor journal and website, which proclaims, “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” found voices in American and international venues.   By the turn of the millennium, “race” was a term in flux, but the fluidity of the term did little to take away its power.  In fact, the persistence of and renewed interest in (both now and more than a century ago) parodic images of blackness demonstrate a social backlash against the instability of racial categories.  Minstrelsy climbed to its highest popularity during the 1830s and 40s when racial lines between blacks and Irish were most blurred (Lott 64-70). To a new millennium American society increasingly ambivalent about the existence of racial categories, the theatricality of minstrelsy and other metaphorical blackface performances serves dual purposes—dismantling stereotypical notions of racial identity while recreating and reaffirming them in the process.

[3] The move to deconstruct race parallels work in gender theory seeking to subvert traditional male-female binaries.  Responding in part to Lacanian assertions in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” that the phallus or lack thereof was the primary mark of identification (Lacan’s bathroom door example), Butler redirects critical focus to question the polemics of Lacan’s initial division:  “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Gender Trouble 33).   For Butler, the theatricality of drag (both male-to-female and female-to-male) works to dislodge essentialized notions of gender identity and sexual difference.  Thus, her example of a drag queen singing Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” highlights the instability of gender identification on multiple levels; not only is the irony of Aretha’s (a “natural” woman) self-reflexive subversion of gender identity noteworthy, but so are the implications of mimetic appropriation of femininity.  Working specifically through excess and repetition, drag deconstructs and reconstructs gender identities, challenging and reifying the materiality of the phallus as a distinguishing marker just as minstrelsy subverts and affirms the logic of essential race differences and other attempts to link physicality to identity.   If “gender trouble” can go from parody to politics, as Butler suggests in her conclusion, can “race trouble” do the same?

[4] On the surface, Lacan’s claim that gender marks the primary division of humans into categories seems to hold out against race.  After all, sexual difference as defined by the presence or absence of a penis is unmitigated by the union of male and female parents, unlike the frequent visual markers of “blending” that appear in the offspring of parents of different races.  Why then, as Gubar notes above, does transraciality prove more resistant to inquiries and receive more scorn from society than does transexuality?  Why does minstrelsy offend in ways that drag does not?  To argue that race is a more fundamental marker of identity than gender or vice versa oversimplifies the complicated antics of the gender-race phenomena.  Instead, an analysis of the ways both gender and race are performed, subverted and affirmed will begin to move the discussion forward and reveal the political possibilities that parody holds.

[5] Released the same year as Butler’s Gender Trouble, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning explores the New York ball scene of gay Hispanic and black males who are transvestites or transsexuals, and the film serves as an informative touchstone for this analysis into race and gender performance.  Through surgical procedures, gestures, and clothing, perceived essentialized biological formulations of a sex / gender system are disrupted.  The performers pass as women (or as straight males) both on the ballroom floor and in everyday society.  The drag queen Octavia St. Laurent, for example, convincingly performs femininity in a crowded shopping mall, with the intent of passing into the epitome of feminine culture—fashion modeling.  However, in Paris Is Burning, drag moves beyond gender subversion in its complex association of race and class.  Provocatively, the first interviewee recalls his father’s telling him that he has three strikes against him—he is black, male and gay.  In a world historically controlled by masculine authority, such a claim appears startling.  Yet, within New York ball culture, femininity becomes a mark of power that goes hand-in-hand with an exaggerated, class-bound whiteness, and Venus Xtravaganza, a transgendered person of color, thus explains, “I’d like to be a spoiled, rich white girl.”  The appropriation of whiteness by drag culture in highly stylized, heavily symbolic performance pieces like “vogueing” demonstrates that a class-bound race, and not simply gender, is being performed.

[6] In an intricate guise of race and class, the goal of the performers is “to be real” as captured in the Cheryl Lynn song that is the anthem for the film.  Fundamental to drag is the explicit desire to touch, feel, and be “Other.”  Pepper Labeija, another drag queen and the mother of the house of Labeija, explains, “To be able to blend—that’s what realness is.”  Yet the performances remain clearly over-the-top, producing racial and gender characteristics to extremes of masquerade and creating to excess the subtleties of feminine gesture (the sway of hips, wrists) and the markers of economic whiteness (the profusion of champagne, designer labels).  The parodic qualities of excess and repetition used throughout the drag performances thereby unhinge notions of what it means “to be real.”  Butler points to the cyclical relationship between the original and the imitation:  “In this sense, the ‘reality’ of heterosexual identities is performatively constituted through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin and the ground of all imitations.  In other words, heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing” (author’s emphasis “Imitation” 722).  Though Butler limits her analysis to gender, logically, while drag in Paris Is Burning is engaged in a parodic subversion and reinstatement of sexual identity, it is also clearly invested in a similar destruction and production of race.

[7] A comparison of the drags shows documented in Paris is Burning to the minstrelsy shows featured in films like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a rewarding move, though not without its complications.  The similarities are easy enough to see.  Both emphasize a staged theatricality dependent on over-the-top constructions of identity.  Both employ intricate makeovers in an elaborate masquerade.  Both incorporate elements of parody.  As the film unravels to reveal a “new millennium minstrel show,” it is society’s (both the society within the film as well as the film’s viewing audience) simultaneous failure and success to embrace and implement the parodic elements of minstrelsy that take center stage and demand our critical attention.   Perhaps, only by interpreting Bamboozled in light of Butlerian gender theory andParis Is Burningcan Lee’s message and the societal reactions be fully understood.

[8] Through the opening explanation of satire and the very titleBamboozledLee warns us not to take things at face value.  As expressed in the clip included in the film from Lee’s earlier Malcolm X, “You’ve been hoodwinked.  You’ve been had.  You’ve been took.  You’ve been led astray, led amok.  You’ve been bamboozled.”  Granted, much of the discomfort that the film raises stems from an uncertainty regarding what is real; as Womack, a black actor who has becomes a star through the new millennium minstrel show, jokes as Sleep’n Eat, “I don’t know who I is.”  Womack’s name represents the peculiar destabilization of gender and racial identities captured by the film, which probes issues of sexuality, what it means to be “Woman,” and of race, what it means to be “Black.”   Indeed, questions of identity prove central to the film as the characters perform, parody, relinquish, realign, reject and reestablish racial stereotypes.  Like the refrain of Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” in Paris Is Burning, various characters inBamboozled remind one another to “Keep it Real”—a proclamation that raises more questions than answers.  A cultural anxiety of identity looms large within the film, where Thomas Dunwitty, a white television executive who has appropriated African American culture through sports, gestures, and marriage, claims to be “blacker” than some blacks, including the black television writer Pierre Delacroix.  Paradoxically, minstrelsy addresses this anxiety through the subversion of racial and gender identities.

[9] But, anxiety of identity also arises from the minstrel tradition’s very manifestation of racial stereotypes in ways that the performances of femininity and whiteness in Paris Is Burning do not produce, and this anxiety refuses separation from the history of racial prejudice and systematic oppression of blacks in this country.  Without a doubt, the minstrel tradition in America developed to address explicitly racist motivations, yet, as Eric Lott posits in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, to focus solely on the white desire to mock and denigrate black culture and blackness is to ignore the ability of the minstrel show to sanctify a white fascination and attraction to blackness.   Rather than reading minstrelsy as subversive, society typically interprets minstrelsy as repressive.  For example, Lott cites Frederick Douglass’ comment from 1848 to describe nineteenth-century sentiment regarding blackface performers, whom he deemed were “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to us by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens” (15).  Recent evidence of the cultural taboo against blackface is not hard to find; Ted Danson’s appearance in blackface while dating Whoopi Goldberg was met with sharp criticism, captured by the white comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s response, “Jesus Christ, Ted, what were you thinking of? Do you think black people think blackface is funny in 1993?” (Ebert).   This increasing awareness of racial injustice is a welcome characteristic to American society, whose consciousness and guilt concerning long-sustained racist traditions have grown. Yet Lott asserts a more complex relation between society and minstrelsy; he claims that “the audiences involved in early minstrelsy were not universally derisive of African Americans or their culture, and that there was a range of responses to the minstrel show which points to an instability or contradiction in the form itself” (15).  The instability and contradiction inherent to minstrelsy are what driveBamboozled and give the television program “Mantan:  The New Millennium Minstrel Show” as well as the film itself, which must also produce the racist images it criticizes, the incredible power to undermine and reify racial identity.

[10] The subversive tactics originate from Delacroix’s initial conception of the show.  He simply wants to make something so offensive that he will be released from his contract with the television station.  Yet Delacroix, like his boss Dunwitty, has undergone the anxiety of identity that characterizes the new millennium.  Though he is black, Delacroix can’t name the African American baseball player who is #24 on Dunwitty’s wall (Willie Mays).  He has changed his name from Peerless Dothan to Pierre Delacroix—not in an effort to reclaim his black heritage like the film’s revolutionary gangsters like Big Blak African and the other Mau Maus, but in an effort to further embrace a white European authenticity.  Delacroix performs what he sees as whiteness through his voice, through his gestures, and through his decisions.  He has little knowledge of “who he is” and therefore cannot negotiate the maze of identity that is blackface.  Thus, when what he expects to be racially offensive is embraced by Dunwitty, he is caught off-guard.  Delacroix’s inability to read himself parallels his inability to predict how Dunwitty, the American public, and even he will respond to his resurrection of the blackface show.  Delacroix does not understand how truly subversive his minstrel show will be.

[11] Dunwitty’s response to the show is overwhelmingly positive and reveals his desire to break social taboos surrounding race for both racist and subversive motives.  Clearly, Dunwitty has extremely contradictory ideas about the essence of race.  During his second scene in the film, he questions Delacriox about “CP” or “colored people’s” time—suggesting that he believes in the racist notion that African Americans can not follow time, except in music or dance.  He pushes Delacroix’s initial concept further into racist stereotypes, suggesting that the setting for the show be changed from the inner city to a plantation.  Yet his desire to emulate and dismantle popular notions of blackness flows in numerous directions in a matrix of ambivalent objectives.  For example, when Dunwitty refuses to acquiesce to Delacriox’s request not to use the word nigger in his presence, Dunwitty appears to be attempting to undermine a linguistic code by depriving it of a negative connotation.  In fact, for many of the whites that become implicated in the performance of blackface throughout the show, it is the liberating potentiality of unearthing the worst of racial stereotypes that proves enticing.  The minstrel show offers whites a chance to alleviate white anxiety and guilt concerning America’s racist history under a new black sanctioning, as evidenced during a scene which shows the filming of the pilot episode; as the minstrel show opens, a white couple looks uncomfortably around until they see African Americans laughing at the blackface, and then they feel free to enjoy themselves.  With the social taboos overturned, white culture is ethically and literally free to indulge its desire for black culture.  In Bamboozledchildren wear blackface masks for Halloween, members of the audience blacken their faces, and society at large is suddenly liberated regarding blackness in ways that echo the nineteenth-century emergence of blackface, which enabled performers to give vent to large-scale repressed concerns and desires.

[12] Indeed, the sexualized nature of the minstrel performance that emerges from a historicized and complex white anxiety concerning black physical prowess and miscegenation cannot be overlooked.  Nodding to history, Lee thus shows how the public fascination with Other through the black, male body continues today.  The minstrel show highlights Manray, a tap-dancer who made his living on the street before rising to fame through the minstrel show, and Womack, Manray’s partner whose sonorous voice projects the deep tones associated with traditional slave songs.  The leap from physicality to sexuality is not difficult; Lott articulates the minstrel audience’s logic:  “If black men could do this with their voices, imagine what they could do in the flesh!” (58).  The performers whet the audience’s unspoken homoerotic desire through hand gestures, sexual innuendoes, and elaborately choreographed play.  The discharge of desire is powerful, erupting in orgasmic exchanges between performer and audience like the trademark “Oooo-eee / Ooooo-ahh” call-and-response used by the show’s master of ceremonies.  Even the audience members, who become blackface performers themselves, receive sexual license through blackness; a Sicilian audience member claims to be “blacker than a nigger” by authenticating his claim through his penis size.  Just as in Paris Is Burninggender and race again are inextricably intertwined in Bamboozled, with the minstrel show’s emphasis on performing black masculinity directly corresponding to drag’s effort to recreate white femininity.

[13] However, unlike drag culture, blackface operates with no interest in appearing “real.” The exaggerated makeup and costumes of drag seem blasé in comparison with the parodic tropes of the minstrel show that denaturalize race from the physical body.  In Bamboozled burnt cork blackens the natural skin of the black performers and red lipstick functions to accentuate both the color and size of natural lips.  The costumes of Mantan (the blackface character played by Manray) and Sleep’n Eat (Womack) belie any realistic apparel, and play instead on the buffoon, the dandy, and the hobo.  Consequently, while humor remains an important aspect of drag culture, it is essential to the minstrel show’s subversive intent.  By exaggerating to excess the color, features, gestures, and dialect of race, the minstrel show’s disinterestedness in theatrical realness provokes laughter in creating the unreal and challenging the “realness” of the original through racial mimesis.  The notion of any essential original that blackface mimics proves false, and society’s folly becomes funny.

[14] In truth, the parade of the unreal spreads outside of Bamboozled‘s minstrel show and into the film’s characters themselves, all who are decidedly complex modern stereotypes of racial and gender identities.  Playing on the excess repetition of stock traits associated with race, the stereotypes further reveal the anxiety of a society whose identity allegiances have been threatened.   Again, Butler’s theories concerning drag prove insightful to the performance of race:  “If there is, as it were, always a compulsion to repeat repetition never fully accomplishes identity.  That there is a need for a repetition at all is a sign that identity is not self-identical.  It requires to be instituted again and again, which is to say that it runs the risk of becoming de-instituted at every interval” (“Imitation” 725).  Myrna Goldfarb, for example, the quintessentially shrewd and offensive Jewish media consultant inBamboozled, operates under the rubrics of racial parody in the same way as the various African Americans who audition for the minstrel show perform nuanced guises of blackness through the stereotypes of the black hippie, the black misogynist, and the black gangster-rappers. They are each stock characters, or caricatures, and the audience, who is well trained in the use of such tropes, is amused.  These theatrical characterizations of racial excess evoke laughter from the audience just as the minstrel’s parodic performances of blackness; however, there is a point where the laughter stops.  To return to Gubar’s question, why can transsexual drag succeed without offense in ways that transracial performance cannot?  Clearly, the subversive potentiality to undermine through excess exists in minstrelsy as well as in drag, and minstrelsy exhibits the same affection and longing for Other that drag demonstrates.  Furthermore, since both drag and minstrelsy recreate race and gender in their very acts of subversion, both participate in a reification of the identities they challenge.  Both drag and minstrelsy seem dangerously close to reifying agents of hegemonic power when they take their performances too far to be “real,” and, conversely, when they touch on aspects of reality that deny their subversive potential.

[15] Returning to Paris Is Burning, the problematic reproduction of gender within drag culture emerges throughout the film.  The body, however psychically or surgically altered, maintains a privileged hold on identity formation.  The presence or absence of traditional gender markers like breasts and penises, the softness or coarseness of skin, and the diminutive aspects of feet, hands, and bones remain prevailing tropes of femininity that are reproduced in ball culture.  The drag queen Octavia St. Laurent’s goal in life is to be a supermodel, thereby objectifying the female body and enforcing limited codes of beauty that many feminists have fought against for decades.  Moreover, drag queens parade up and down the ballroom in a striptease that hints at a reenactment of male misogynistic fantasy.  And furthermore, despite the liberating aspects of ball culture, the tragedy and violence of women’s oppression are brought to life.  Venus Xtravaganza equates the sex work that she performs for her suitors, who reward her with small gifts and cash, to what a suburban housewife must do for a new washer and dryer—surely raising feminist eyebrows—and then falls victim to societal hatred of women and gender deviants; later in the film, Venus is found strangled and stuffed under a bed in a cheap hotel.  Though drag’s parody of gender challenges the stability of identity constructions, it also must recreate the constructions as part of the process.

[16] The same double-bind must be said of blackface.  To confront the illogic of racialized identities, blackface and the other parodic stereotypes in Bamboozled reproduce the racist images that they seek to overthrow.  Delacroix’s mother chastises him for selling out and making a “coon show,” and other characters in the film are acutely aware of the negative effects the blackface parody will have on the daily lives of African Americans.  To understand more fully the limitations of blackface—and its radical potentiality—one must turn to the power structure of the performers and the performed and the difference between expression and performance in the complex dynamics of gender and race.

[17] In the drag culture of Paris Is Burning, whiteness is performed within an economically disenfranchised black and Latino culture.  Moreover, femininity is emulated as a source of power and authority; the “mother” position in each house that constitutes the new gay family represents the individual with the most agency within that culture by having the most trophies, the most followers, and the most fame.  In contrast, the minstrelsy of Bamboozled displays a white interest in the performance of blackness, and, inextricably, masculinity.  It would be inadequate to comment simply on the successes and failures of the subversive elements of either drag or minstrelsy from a false dichotomy of power relations where, in one the powerless perform the empowered and, in the other, the empowered performed the powerless—though this certainly is true.  Instead, a Foucauldian analysis of the distribution of power within these performances is necessary to view the possibilities of performance for political and identity revolutions.

[18] In The History of Sexuality Foucault claims, “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (93).   Linking this premise to a historical framework of desire, Foucault revisions the political economy of the power-pleasure structure.  He explains, “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations” (94).  Therefore, the audience and the performer’s desire to have and to be Other complicate the unequal distribution of power among race (intrinsically connected in the performances with class) and gender.  Traditional binaries of power are upturned, as male / female, black / white, and gay / straight are reversed in multileveled longings.  While the binaries exist, the anxiety of identity permeates everyone.

[19] Furthermore, as Foucault later describes in Discipline and Punish, the body internalizes the external law (here, the law of essentialized race and gender) and manifests the law from within.  Through the deep indoctrination of the binary systems of race and gender, the liberating potentiality of parody, especially racial parody, threatens to collapse into the perpetuation of stereotypes.  Butler, again speaking specifically of gender, explains, “Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony” (177). Contemporary reviews ofBamboozled often note that theater audiences usually stopped laughing about halfway through the film.  At some point, minstrelsy’s power to recreate the very binary logic it has the power to deconstruct overwhelms and reverses the “race trouble” it has attempted to make.  In the moments when blackface and drag fail to negotiate successfully the excess and repetition on which the subversion turns, the parody crumbles.  As Womack tells Manray, “New millennium, huh?  It’s the same bullshit, just done over.  The same bullshit.”  Minstrelsy’s incredible power to undermine strikes in backlash with equal ferocity.  Moreover, while the parody of identity succeeds, at least temporarily, through Spike Lee, the performance of blackness backfires when it finds itself in unwitting and unaware hands.  Because the particular knowledge systems of individual performers and audiences vary, it would be impossible to distinguish the precise moments when parodies of racial and gender identities fail to be subversive and instead perpetuate essentialized notions of being.  Instead, an example of such failure in popular culture proves helpful in the larger analysis.

[20] Though Paris Is Burning and Bamboozled met with limited success, minstrelsy and drag, like power, are everywhere and have become imbedded in such popular, less critical, mainstream culture mediums as George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Released in 2000, the same year as Bamboozled, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menacespeaks volumes about society’s love affair with blackface. In the film, the character Jar Jar Binks puts on what is indeed a “new millennium minstrel show,” pushing the burnt cork and lipstick of traditional blackface into a computer-generated construction that masks the entire black male body. In Jar Jar, we see the tremendous potentiality of a sci-fi “cyborg” un-reality, as Donna Haraway calls forth inSimians, Cyborgs, and Women.  She explains, “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (174).  Cyborgs have unlimited potentiality to disrupt the pigeonholes of race and gender identity through their scientifically morphed and politically realigned multiplicities of “affinity.”  Haraway envisions the future of identity revolution arising from these technical mergings and mechanic parodies, which seemingly would find fertile ground in galactic arenas such as Star Wars.  However, as numerous fans and critics object, racial stereotypes like Jar Jar fail to transcend human identity allegiances to race and gender.  In fact, the computer-generated blackface performance of Jar Jar proves to be less successful at identity subversion than the outright minstrelsy of Bamboozled.

[21] The Phantom Menace works on a multitude of racial parodies, all the while apparently unaware of doing so.  Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ominous opening warning finds multiple meanings in the film:  “I have a bad feeling about this.  It’s not about the mission, master.  It’s something elsewhere.  Elusive.”  Indeed, a tumultuous racial anxiety dances on the periphery of the film, while the racial stereotypes within the film run amok and reveal the extent of Lucas’s internalization of binary conceptions of race and gender.  Though The Phantom Menace is a film appropriate for children, the innocuousness of the genre makes it an especially dangerous avenue for the play of stereotypes, much like the litany of old racist cartoons Lee resurrects at the end ofBamboozled.   As Anna Everett rightly states in “The Other Pleasures: The Narrative Function of Race in the Cinema,” “By covertly voicing the ideology of race in popular entertainment vehicles, filmmakers assure perpetuation of racist attitudes throughout our society.  And because of counter movements such as multiculturalism and pluralism…narrating race in this way becomes the means of choice for recruiting and sustaining adherents” (280).  Jar Jar is an undeniable parody of blackness, but one that fails to subvert restrictive notions of identity, and instead reaffirms the stereotypical treatment in entertainment of African Americans as buffoons.  Jar Jar, and the other racial stereotypes in The Phantom Menace, merely perform “the same bullshit, just done over” and thus the excess and repetition of the parody proves to be more limiting than liberating.  Nevertheless, Jar Jar’s inheritance of the minstrel tradition allows the film to engage in multi-layered performances of race—ones that however conventional, are still noteworthy from an academic perspective.  The film’s apparent, almost neurotic, desire to reinforce racial identities suggests the extent to which popular society is reacting in backlash to contemporary movements to subvert race.  In many respects, The Phantom Menace emerges as the product of the racial and gender anxiety of modernity, and, as in the minstrel show, works to redraw the boundaries surrounding identity.

[22] Physically, the production of Jar Jar Binks is an intricate racial statement.  The  loping walk, dreadlock-like ears, dangling arms, big lips, and bulging eyes that characterize his “Gungan” race all have direct corollaries in racist portrayals of blackness in minstrel shows.  Seemingly inoffensive, Jar Jar displaces the overt threat of racial comedy by covertly transferring stereotypical racial traits to an alien physicality.  Like P.T. Barnum’s Great American Museum and Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels (Lott 72), The Phantom Menace continues to market white-produced images of the black male body—but extends the parody by methodically stripping the physical exterior to a composite of racial signifiers.   The DVD release of The Phantom Menace explains the procedure that created the character of Jar Jar.  Ahmed Best, an African American in a Jar Jar suit performed the role in live action before graphic artists, who then used computer-generation to replace his physical body with the film’s computer-generated image.  In one section of the early filming of Jar Jar, the documentary even shows Lucas demonstrating for Best the way he wants Best to exaggerate the looseness of Jar Jar’s arms.  He instructs Best how to be black: “When you walk, again because you’re presenting, again, you know, the sort of loose arms that kind of don’t have much in them.” As Lucas models the walk for Best, he performs and produces comic blackness as he wants it to be in the film.  Unquestionably, the black male body is also presented in positions of power and authority in The Phantom Menace through the characters of the commander of the Jedi council Mace Windu, played by Samuel Jackson and Captain Panaka, played by Hugh Quarshie, and these naturalized black men lend authenticity to the film’s seeming multiculturalism.  In fact, Jar Jar’s clownish portrayal of blackness would not work in naturalized black skin; in the twenty-first century,The Phantom Menace proves the new millennium minstrel show must be disguised to enter the American mainstream.

[23] Jar Jar’s superficial non-blackness enables him to perform blackness in more demeaning and destructive ways.  He fulfills the epitome of minstrel’s sadistic and violent degradation of blackness as described by Lott:  “Minstrel ‘darkies’ were conned and swindled, run down by trolleys, shocked by batteries, and jailed for violating laws they didn’t understand” (64).  Systematically, Jar Jar performs all of the above anecdotes and more.  A short synopsis of the slapstick humor Jar Jar endures in the film includes being shocked with a cattle prodder, stepping in excrement, fainting in battle, being run over by machines, catching his foot in a stirrup, catching his hand in an engine, having his tongue pulled, being bullied by a pod racer, smelling animal farts up close, and being shocked in the face with electricity (which numbs and exaggerates the looseness of his large lips).  Additionally, the dialogue and accent further the racial stereotype; Gungan dialect appears to be little more than the racialized black dialect made popular toward the end of the nineteenth century by poets like Joel Chandler Harris and Paul Laurence Dunbar.  For example, after Qui-Gon saves Jar Jar from being run over at their first encounter, the following exchange occurs:

‘Mooie, mooie.  I wuv you.’

‘You almost got us killed.  Are you brainless?’

‘I spek.’

‘The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.  Get out of here.’

‘No, no. Messa stay.  Messa called Jar Jar Binks.  Messa your humble servant.’

When Obi-Wan, the other Jedi, asks Qui-Gon who Jar Jar is, Qui-Gon replies, “A local,” and Jar Jar’s accent reflects a blend of white imaginative slave dialect and popularized modern Carribean slang.   The suffix “sa” is added to most pronouns such as “yousa” “messa” “wesa,” which echo the prolific inflection of “sir” into parodies of slave dialect.  Furthermore, the “th” of standard English is replaced by “d” in Gungan dialect;  “disen” is used for “this is” and “dis” and “dat” mean “this” and “that.”  Numerous other special adjectives enhance the blackening of Jar Jar’s voice:  “maxibig” means “very big,” “cawazy” means “crazy,” “okieday” means “okay” and “moola” means “money” (“Gungan Dialect”).  By pulling out such tropes associated with blackness, the film endows Jar Jar’s character with the legion of racial stereotypes familiar to the audience.

[24] Blackness is not the only racialized Other that the film stereotypes.  Asians and Jews also find caricatures within the film for explicitly racist purposes.  The Viceroys who help to initiate the beginning of the “wars” with their power-hungry dominance of the trade federation are explicably Japanese, with thick accents that belie their apparent “cyborg” transcendence of racial identity.  Moreover, the stereotypical Jewish character appears through Watto, the used parts salesman whose hooked nose and money-grubbing hand gestures complete the stylized Jewish accent that distinguishes his otherwise bug-like alien body.  What differentiates these stereotypes from the ones in Bamboozled is the film’s inability to parody whiteness, which remains untouched by racial stereotypes, as well as the film’s need to mask its portrayal of racial Others through computer-generated images all the while tangentially dealing with the issue of slavery through the white boy Anakin Skywalker and his white mother.  A complex racial anxiety is at work here, and it further manifests in viewers’ extreme reactions to the character of Jar Jar.

[25] Star Wars enthusiasts’ responses to Jar Jar have been highly contradictory.  Numerous Internet sites have been created to bolster the feelings of both sides, ranging from The International Society for the Preservation of Jar Jar Binks, a kid-friendly site that ignores the film’s racial insinuations, to several hate sites that range from the now defunct to the still active website Kill Jar Jar Binks Now—which boasts over 75,000 visitors since 1999.  Many of the Jar Jar denouncers point to the racial discomfiture his character arouses.  Tom Scott posted this sentiment on a Jar Jar discussion board: “I, being a person of color, felt it odd/interesting that Jar Jar Binks resembled the (erstwhile?) impression of southern African Americans of yore…it is not rare to find such politically-incorrect representations even in ‘modern’ times—but I was made uncomfortable nonetheless.”  Other postings are not so kind: “I want to know when Roger Rabbit had sex with Aunt Jemima? [sic] Where does Lucas get off creating such a racist, Sambo, Steppin Fetchit character like Jar Jar?” (Brian).  Indeed, the reaction of some fans does much to direct attention not only to Lucas’s intentions in the creation of such depictions of race, but also to society’s response.  Many of the postings reflect a disproportionately violent reaction to Jar Jar’s character that suggests underlying racist, misogynist, and homophobic tendencies themselves.  One unsigned posting suggests, “Shoot that piece of sht I swear [sic].  I wish I had a gun so I could have shot myself everytime [sic] he came on….I hope I have done my part in the destruction of that whore” (“People Say 3”).  Jar Jar clearly confuses gender as well as racial identity; another writer comments: “A great way for Jar jar [sic] to die is to have him standing in front of a male and female bathroom he wouldn’t know which one to go in!  Then someone would kill him because it sucks!” (“People Say 4”).  Top ten lists of ways to torture and kill Jar Jar include decapitating, flailing, and dragging him behind a car (Rob).  These reactions suggest that deeply rooted anxieties concerning identity are evoked and affirmed through such stereotypical images.

[26] While Lynne Hale, a Lucasfilm spokeswoman, responded to anti-Jar Jar reactions with the statement, “Nothing in Star Wars is racially motivated.  Star Wars is a fantasy movie.  I really do think to dissect this movie as if it had direct reference to the world today is absurd”—the film’s participation in a new millennium remake of the traditional minstrel show is undeniable (Frankel).  The Phantom Menace confirms the continuation of an American necessity to objectify, control, and perform blackness and Other under the sanctioning of popular entertainment.  Furthermore, despite press statements to the contrary, Lucas’s avowed unconsciousness concerning the perpetuation of racial stereotypes has much to say in direct relation to today’s world.  Turning from film to the blackface events at Southern universities (including Auburn University, University of Tennessee, University of Virginia, Oklahoma State University, and University of Mississippi) over the past few years, a correlation emerges between the minstrelsy in modern films and in life and points to reasons why contemporary minstrelsy fails to subvert race in the manner that contemporary drag subverts gender.

[27] Over the past ten years, several incidents of campus fraternities’ and sororities’ performance of blackface have received criticism and punishment from school officials and the media, but photos from separate Halloween parties at Auburn University in Alabama during the 2001-02 school year captured public attention and ignited public resentment against a continuing minstrel tradition.  Images from the Delta Sigma Phi party show one student in a KKK costume holding a noose around the neck of another student in blackface, while both stand in front of the Confederate flag.

 Southern Poverty Law Center - "Hate in the News"

Figure 1

Photos from the Beta Theta Pi party reveal numerous members in blackface, wearing the jerseys of the historically black fraternity Omega Psi Phi, Afro wigs, heavy gold jewelry, and posing with gestured gang hand-signs.  These events paralleled remarkably similar incidents at the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and suggest not only the perpetuation of minstrelsy, but also a revival of its popularity.  While the intentions behind the blackface performances clearly vary from one fraternity to the other, they collectively demonstrate some of the possibilities for blackface to subvert and affirm racial and gender identities. 

[28] Like The Phantom Menace, some of the fraternity parodies never escape the outright racism and race affirmation of the blackface performance yet continue to exhibit a white male interest in the black male body.  The photograph from the University of Mississippi captures a male in black face on his knees, apparently interrupted from scrubbing the floor, and poised in a gesture of submission as another male in a police uniform holds a gun to his face. 

 Southern Poverty Law Center depiction of police officer threatening man

Figure 2

As disturbing as the image is, it also reveals a host of sexualized motivations within the two white students who are performing whiteness and blackness.  Gubar claims that homosexual desire and racechange are often linked:  “Racial ambiguity, in other words, attends sexual ambivalence and vice versa….though their white creators vary in the extent to which apprehension leads them to annihilate the representative of deviance” (176).   The sado-masochistic tension between the powerful, authoritative figure of the law and the powerless, subservient figure of the oppressed erupts within the photograph, as the kneeling blackface figure half-heartedly wards off the gun-phallus directed towards his open mouth.  Photographs from the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity have remarkably similar components, replacing the authority of the police as law with the authority of the KKK. Consequently, as the images reaffirm white power notions of racial identity, they simultaneously disrupt heterosexual gender norms through their sexualized portrayals of the racial Other.

[29] Photographs from the Beta Theta Pi Halloween party at Auburn University reveal equally complex performances of blackness. 

 Southern Poverty Law Center people posing in racist depiction

Figure 3

Again, the masquerade of blackness allows the performers license to control the black male body for their pleasure in what Eve Sedgwick describes as a homosocial-homosexual continuum.  Notably, the Beta party, unlike the Delta party, did not employ the performances of potentially violent white authority in relation to their performances of blackness.  Like Dunwitty, their intent seems to focus on the ability of theatricality to break down racial identities through humor, excess and exaggeration, though they neglect to consider the performance’s power to reaffirm those same racial identities.  Michael Moore, a freshman member of the Beta fraternity, explains in an email interview,

Last halloween, there were a few guys who dressed up as the black fraternity members with blackface on.  There was also a guy who dressed up as Fat Albert and had blackface on, and one guy dressed up as a black farmer with a fishing pole, like one of those small statues.  Anyways, their intention was in good fun and was not done as an act of racial malice.  I, for intance, dressed up as the treasurer of our fraternity and I had the same intention as the guys who dressed up as black guys.  Part of the fun of Halloween is dressing up as someone or something that you’re not and exaggerating their characteristics. That was what we were doing at our party.  It was not racism, it was a costume.  There were over a hundred and fifty people there in costume, and the people who were dressed up as black guys had the same intentions as the people who dressed up as Hulk Hogan, Star Trek characters, and Spiderman: to have fun.  Yet, we got caught on the coat tails of the Delta Sig fraternity who got in trouble for guys dressing up as KKK members at a seperate house on a seperate night.  We lost our chapter and now we all get dirty looks and are considered racist by those who don’t know us. [sic]

When asked in a subsequent telephone interview if he thought their incident was different from the Delta fraternity’s, he responded, “Definitely.  We never would have done that.  That is just common sense—our thinking was we were just having a good time.”

[30] While the intent of the Betas and the other fraternities might appear to be pure manifestations of racist hatred, they in fact reveal complex and affectionate desires (however misguided) to be and to be accepted by Other.  Moore’s explanation correlates with Ted Danson’s blackface and Lee’s white characters inBamboozled.  Like Danson, Dunwitty, and the show’s white audience members, Moore also believes that their performance was legitimized by an authentic black sanctioning: “In our defense, there was a black girl at the party who was not offended at all.”  Although Moore’s innocent naiveté surrounding the blackface performances suggests, like Lucas, an unwillingness to acknowledge the racist history of blackface performance, Moore genuinely seems surprised and hurt by the outrage the photographs have brought about, as well as by the violent implications of the Delta Sigma Phi performances.  After all, as the photographs demonstrate, the costumes allowed for an evening of male-to-male bonding that endorsed “white” arms affectionately embracing “black” bodies in a socially sanctioned erotica.  But even more disturbing to Moore than the public outcry against the photographs was the later revelation that the black fraternity mocked in the blackface performance had their own form of racial mimicry; photographs were linked to their web page of their pledges in whiteface—also with guns to their heads, and, especially in light of this whiteface performance—Moore does not comprehend why the performances of his fraternity did more to damage race relations than to assuage them.

[31] The failure of these real-life blackface performances serves as a reminder for cultural theorists to “Keep it Real.”  In the move from parody to politics, why then is minstrelsy so much more threatening than drag and so much less subversive?  Gubar writes in her conclusion, “Despite the anarchic potential of racechange, then, the aggregate of epidermal fungibility, or what I am tempted to call ‘epidermatics,’ almost always seem historically to have resulted in the subordination, muting, or obliteration of the Other” (244).  While both drag and minstrelsy demonstrate not only a subversion of essentialized identities but also an identity-affirming desire to be Other, the permanence or the temporality of the change makes the signifying difference between these two powerful parodies.  Gubar relates a nineteenth-century minstrel’s joke: “Why am I like a young widow?  Because I do not stay long in black” (79).  Blackface partygoers can remove their masks in the morning, but gay males can’t erase their connection to a lifestyle considered deviant by society.  Therefore, inParis Is Burning the subversion of gender identities that emanates from drag is coupled with a day-to-day commitment to the performance of a Self that is ostracized and ridiculed by society, unlike its counterpart in minstrelsy.  Furthermore, while Foucault convincingly demonstrates how false binaries of power fail to explain adequately the intricacies of power’s relationship to desire and longing, there is a materialist reality that cannot deny the inequalities of power between the performers and the performed.  Drag queens, who envision white femininity as a position of power in society, want their performance of woman “to be real”; minstrels, on the other hand, who see black masculinity (two of the three strikes against the individual in Paris Is Burning) as a position of oppression, do not.  Whereas some drag queens commit their performances of femininity to the surgically altered physical realities of breasts and vaginas, blackface minstrels never make such permanent allegiances to their performances of Other.  Blackface minstrelsy is a temporary visitation into the world of the Other.  A deeper commitment to the welfare and experiences of African Americans has developed in some transracial performances like John Howard Griffin’s investigation into the 1950’s South in Black Like Me, Grace Halsell’s feminist crossing in the 1969 book Soul Sister, and even C. Thomas Howell’s humorous performance in the 1980’s film Soul Man, but these stories all involve a distinct desire to “keep it real,” unlike the parodic excess of blackface, and, since their transformations are done with tanning pills instead of burnt cork, the performers can not wash off their blackness at their whim. 

[32] Does minstrelsy possess the potentiality to subvert essentialized notions of race?  Yes.  But most of the time, it does not.  Spike Lee’sBamboozled succeeds—at least to a degree—because of its continued investment in the interests of people defined by the construction of blackness.  George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace fails because it does not.  The subversive potential of blackface, while not limited to any essentialized blackness of its performer, demands, however, a commitment to the subversion of essentialized identities—something we have yet to see fulfilled in this new millennium of race and gender anxieties.


I thank LaVinia Jennings, Misty Anderson, and Wayne Robbins for their comments and insight on this essay.

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